Short Subjects

Originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Short Subjects


Millions have read Jonathan Harr’s bestseller, A Civil Action, the true tale of a labyrinthine toxic tort suit in Massachusetts that ground on for six years. Amazingly, Harr condensed 196 volumes of depositions, 78 days of trial testimony and 57 volumes of hearing transcripts into a taut legal thriller.

Simplifying the complex takes real talent. No one does it better than Hollywood, as Touchstone Pictures proved when it cut the six-year litigation down to only 118 minutes in a movie version of the book starring John Travolta.

But brevity has a cost – the loss of detail that made the original story so compelling. The real test comes this fall when Attention Deficit Productions brings A Civil Action to television.

The half hour special (retitled simply Action) strives to please today’s easily-distracted, channel-flipping audience while retaining all the important drama and characters from the original: Schlichtmann, the idealistic, obsessed plaintiffs’ lawyer; Conway, his stalwart partner; Facher, the formidable adversary; and Judge Skinner. Check out the complete script:

A spring day in 1982:

Schlichtmann: We gotta sue these guys.

Conway: Okay. [Commercial break]

Several years follow in which the plaintiffs ask defendants for a bunch of documents and stuff. [Commercial break]

At trial, young Schlichtmann gets guidance from the patriarchal Facher:

Facher: Objection! [LOOK SMUG]

Facher: Objection! [LOOK SUPERIOR]


[INSERT SCENE FOR TV: Schlichtmann attacks Facher. Facher reveals he’s Spiderman when he leaps to avoid thrust and sticks to ceiling. Sudden hurricane hits courtroom. Schlichtmann saves everyone. Falls in love with beautiful juror.] [Commercial break]

Captivating experts are called to untangle the complex evidence:

Schlichtmann: Please explain to the jury what the 12,000 pages of data [Commercial break] from the hydrogeological groundwater study [Commercial break] revealed, remembering that the producers have allotted your character only one second.

Expert: Defendants bad.

Heated settlement discussions continue (commercials woven in to save time):

Schlichtmann: That’s our offer. But that’s not all. You not only get the settlement and dismissal. Act now and we’ll send you the incredible Abdomenizer. A whole new you in three weeks. It’s a good deal, Facher.

Facher: Outrageous. If my ‘Original Club’ wasn’t securely protecting my auto from theft, I’d use it to knock some sense into you.

Closing argument finally arrives:

Schlichtmann: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for your attention and patience during these four grueling minutes of trial.

Judge Skinner: I will now instruct the jury. Run, don’t walk, back to that room and reach a verdict. Giddyup.

Juror: Aren’t you supposed to give us four convoluted questions that will later prove controversial?

Judge Skinner: No time for that. It’s thumbs up or down. [LOOK AT WATCH] Too late. Everyone shake hands and go home.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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