Civil Action

Author: Sylvia Kniest

Time: 4 periods
Run off articles
Materials: Articles from websites listed below
Video: “A Civil Action” available at most local video stores


Students will observe the legal procedures involved in class action lawsuits and gain knowledge of how they are sometimes used as a tool to deter polluters of the environment. Students will also read about the background the Love Canal and how it instigated the passage of Superfund in order to gain an appreciation for the impact that environmental pollution can have on communities. Segments of the movie, “A Civil Action”, which is based on a true story of water contamination in Woburn, Massachusetts are shown to illustrate the legal process.

Students will be able to:
1. Describe what the impact of Superfund has on toxic waste removal.
2. List the steps in a class action lawsuit.
3. Discuss the rationale for joining in a class action lawsuit for deterring environmental pollution.

National Standards For Civics and Government
III-C. How are state and local governments organized and what do they do?
III-D. What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?
V-E. How can citizens take part in civic life?

Teacher Background
The video, “A Civil Action” used in lesson 3 can be rented at any video store. The teacher should preview it and cue it to the points that are mentioned in the lesson.

Resource Websites

http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/issues/1996-10-24/feature2.html/page1.html (pages 1-5)”Pain of Maryvale”
http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php/329.html Superfund article
http://home.earthlink.net/~dkennedy56/woburn_trial.html#AA article, “Death and Justice” for introduction to movie, “A Civil Action”.



Day 1
Lesson 1: (one period)
Begin by asking for three students to volunteer to come to the front of the room. Cut the following excerpts from the article, “The Pain of Maryvale” into three slips of paper and give one excerpt to each student. Ask each volunteer to read their excerpt to the class.

1. “Thirty-six years ago, Patricia and Roy Johnson paid $12,600 for a concrete-block home in the west Phoenix region generally known as Maryvale. Like hundreds of other young married couples, the Johnsons chose to live in Maryvale because it provided affordable housing, seemed like a safe place to raise children and was close to Roy's place of employment.”

2. “In 1973, the Johnson’s youngest child and only daughter, 7-year-old Karen, fell ill with leukemia, an often fatal malignancy of the organs that manufacture blood. She died when she was 13 years old.”

3. “In 1993, the now-elderly couple joined 45 other west-side residents in a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix….”

Ask students to “think, pair, and share”; Think: why do you think the Johnsons joined a class action lawsuit? Why are they suing the city? Pair: discuss their guess with a neighbor. Share: share their answers with the class.

1. The teacher should record the students’ responses as they share them with the class.

2. Hand out article, “The Pain of Maryvale” from http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/issues/1996-10-24/feature2.html/page1.html
and ask the students to read rest of the story beginning on page 1 to the top of page 5 (tell them to stop reading when they get to “Cathy’s Story”).

3. After reading the article students will discuss the following with their partner:
a) Describe the complaint that would be filed in the lawsuit.
b) List all of the responsible parties that would be the defendants in the suit.
c) Describe the evidence that proves their liability.
d) The Johnsons commented that money wasn’t the main objective for joining in the lawsuit, therefore what was their main reason?
e) What would you do if you were in this situation? Is there anything that you would do differently? Explain.

4. After students have spent 15 minutes discussing the questions with their partner, have them share their comments with the class. Close by telling the class that they will be looking at an actual class action suit dealing with similar circumstances.

Lesson 2: Introduce “A Civil Action” (one period)
Hand out the article on Superfund: http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php/329.html
and pages 2-3 from “Death and Justice” (introduction through “illness and death”) http://home.earthlink.net/~dkennedy56/woburn_trial.html#AA
Ask students to read the articles and answer the questions that follow:

1. What was the background for the Superfund legislation?

2. Should Congress pass legislation to re-authorize the Super Fund tax? Who pays for the clean up of toxic waste now that the Superfund tax has expired?

3. How does the Superfund legislation apply to the Woburn case?

4. Who filed the lawsuit? Against whom?

5. What is the nature of the evidence for an increase in cancer rates in Woburn?

6. Based on the evidence provided, whom do you think should be held responsible for the toxic contamination present in Woburn?

Have a class discussion on the following:
- Discuss question #2: Should Congress pass legislation to re-authorize the Super Fund tax?

- Discuss question #6: Whom do you think should be held responsible for the toxic contamination present in Woburn?

Conclude the discussion by telling the students they are going to watch a video about the civil action lawsuit concerning the community of Woburn, Massachusetts in order to gain a better understanding of the civil procedures involving toxic torts.

Lesson 3: “Video: A Civil Action” (2 periods)

1. Have students prepare a video log: Divide a sheet of paper into two columns; label column 1- facts and observations and label column 2- comments and reactions.
a) Students should list the facts related to the case and the civil process in column 1 as described by the lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, as they watch the movie. At the end of each video segment, students should record their reactions and questions that they have in column 2.

2. Start the movie where the lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta), is on the air at a radio station, taking phone calls from the public. Show the movie through Jan’s meeting with the families involved in the case and his walk through the contaminated site along the river. Stop the segment where he sees the Beatrice truck in the factory yard.
a) After stopping segment one, allow students a few minutes to record their reactions and then discuss:
b) What would you do if you were Jan; would you take the case? Why or why not? What would you need to consider in making the decision?

3. Start the movie where Jan is taking depositions of witnesses—stop the movie after the meeting with the defense attorneys regarding an out of court settlement.
a) Allow students a few minutes to record their reactions. Discuss any questions they have about the legal process.
b) Discuss: What must Jan Schlichtmann prove? Do you feel he has enough evidence to prove his case in court or do you think that he should agree to a settlement with the attorneys for the defendants?

4. If time allows you may want to show the rest of the movie so that students can learn the outcome of the trial. Otherwise show the remaining ten minutes of the movie where Jan is compiling further evidence on the case for a possible appeal; start where he is in a coffee shop when a glass of water is dropped, spilling water onto the floor.
a) Have students record their final reactions in their video logs.
b) Discuss: Was justice served in this case? Why or why not?
What would you have done differently if you had been a lawyer for the plaintiffs?

Tell students that they are going to have an opportunity to participate in a civil trial as either a lawyer for a plaintiff or defendant. Their final project for the unit will involve researching the background of an actual case and preparing written briefs and oral arguments for an appeals court.

Embedded Assessment

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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