A Civil Action (1998) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Jan Schlichtmann, a tenacious lawyer, is addressed by a group of families. When investigating the seemingly non-profiting case, he finds it to be a major environmental issue that has a lot of impact potential. A leather production company could be responsible for several deadly cases of leukemia, but also is the main employer for the area. Schlichtmann and his three colleagues set out to have the company forced to decontaminate the affected areas, and of course to sue for a major sum of compensation. But the lawyers of the leather company's mother company are not easy to get to, and soon Schlichtmann and his friends find themselves in a battle of mere survival.

  • Jan Schlittman (Travolta) agrees to represent eight families whose children died from leukemia after two large corporations leaked toxic chemicals into the water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts, even though the case could mean financial, and career suicide for him.

  • Jan Schlickmann (Travolta) is a cynical lawyer who goes out to "get rid of" a case, only to find out it is potentially worth millions. The case becomes his obsession, to the extent that he is willing to give up everything - including his career and his clients' goals, in order to continue the case against all odds.

  • Jan Schlichtmann is a successful lawyer whose practically his own entrepreneur. He's a humble bachelor with a nice car, a nice house, and a career that has amassed huge rewards. Not to mention being the founder and practice of the lucrative law firm he runs with his Boston partners, all in a case's settlement. However, when the families of deceased children sue a giant food conglomerate, with the accusation of their companies are responsible for poisoning their children and afflicting them fatally with cancer. Jan comes to the rescue, thinking it's one more case he can easily knock out of the park and make a fortune, as well as a name for he and his firm. With a class action lawsuit to file, Jan willingly puts himself and his firm as representatives of those families. However, it's one case that could ruin Jan: his pride, his ambition, and ultimately, his career. As the pressures of the case begin to take their turn on both the prosecution, the defense, as well as the families, Jan is about to realize that he has taken on the biggest case of his life, and there is a price to pay.

  • The families of children who died sue two companies for dumping toxic waste: a tort so expensive to prove, the case could bankrupt their lawyers.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • This synopsis contains no spoilers, in the same way that real life stories reported widely in the news contain no spoilers, only smoking guns. The plot of "A Civil Action" is based on a true story of the successful personal injury "ambulance chaser" [Characters' words] lawyer, otherwise unfulfilled, secretly hoping for that one big case. The case he gets is unexpected and did cost him his livelihood, but apparently (as the entire movies' main action points are transferred between each other by the main characters' own narration) imbued him with a better outlook on what it means to be "successful". The characters names are not changed, also because it is a true story. At the very end of the movie (yes, there is a spoiler one could say) that involves a potential appeal in the Supreme Court - again, true as revealed in the pre-credit roll often seen in true-story films, such as "Erin Brockovich".

    The "big case" is that recorded 1981 of the People of Mass. vs. W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, who had been dumping a cancer-causing industrial solvent into the water table of Woburn, Massachusetts for many years - more than a decade. Beatrice Foods was the parent company of W.R. Grace, a Long Grove, IL. based chemical invention company, known for mixing chemicals experimentally, as was their charge.

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