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A Civil Action: The Real Story

Civil Action MovieCivil Action Book

“A Civil Action” is a New York Times Best Seller turned movie with John Travolta in the leading role. The true story of a lawyer bringing a civil suit on behalf of 8 families of childhood leukemia victims in Woburn, Massachusetts doubles as a lesson in lawyering.

The book depicts the idealistic young attorney Jan Schlictmann as a Porsche-driving Captain Ahab, with the public acclaim from conquering the chemical corporations allegedly responsible for the leukemia as his elusive white whale.

The case would last 9 years and drive Schlictmann into personal bankruptcy. Although a settlement was reached, there was little for the plaintiffs to celebrate.

The 8 million dollar settlement was split between thirteen families—minus 2.2 million in legal fees (which didn’t even cover Schlictmann’s 2.6 million in expenses). Years after the settlement, Michael Keating, one of the attorneys for the chemical companies, commented:

"I felt that the clients didn't have the priority in [Schlictmann's] mind that they should have."

                     – (In the Shadow of Woburn, Boston Magazine, Sept. 2009)

[Excerpt from A Civil Action: Ted Warshafsky Featured in New York Times Best Seller]

That fall, Schlictmann flew out to Milwaukee, where Trial Lawyers for Public Justice was having its annual board meeting. He laid out for the directors his plan for preparing the case, and he estimated that it would cost at least three hundred thousand dollars, maybe as much as half a million if it went to trial.

All of the board members were seasoned trial lawyers, older than Schlichtmann, and with many million-dollar verdicts to their credit. At the head of the table sat Ted Warshafsky, a Milwaukee lawyer who’d made his name suing drug companies. He was an excitable man in his late fifties, given to occasional explosive and profane outburst. On the theory that a pet would have a calming effect, he had acquired a large boxer. The dog accompanied him everywhere. It took an instant dislike to Schlictmann. When Warshafsky heard half a million dollars, he flew into an apoplectic rage, his face crimson as he shouted at Schlictmann. Immediately the boxer’s ears went up. It leaped to its feet and put its paws on the table, a menacing eye on Schlictmann, who half rose from his chair, prepared to bolt from the room.

A Civil Action Book vs Movie vs Reality: Anatomy Of A Failed Suit

Schlictmann’s trial strategy involved an expensive moonshot: Funding original cancer research to prove a causal link between pollutants dumped by the chemical companies and leukemia in neighborhood children. The likelihood of conclusive legal proof was deemed nil by medical experts. Still, Schlictmann pressed on, totally committed to finding a way to make it work, all the while wondering if it was even possible.

To make matters worse, Schlictmann could have settled for much more than what his clients ended up with, according to Keating. Before the trial started, Schlictmann had offered a $175 million deal to settle the case—a staggering amount in 1985. Schlictmann felt it would send a message to all corporations. Attorneys for the chemical companies promptly walked out of the room. As Keating recalls, they had come prepared to offer as much as $40 million, but Schlictmann’s brashness compelled them to take their chances in court.

In the end, Schlictmann settled with the companies for $8 million. His law firm had spent every last dime in their coffers and could no longer pursue litigation. Schlictmann, who put up his car and condominium as collateral to fund the case, lost both.

Lesson: Client First, Ego Second

In personal injury law, putting the client first means advising as to the most likely outcomes of each path--and being realistic about those potential outcomes. The goal must always be to do what’s best FOR THE CLIENT, not for the attorney, his firm, or anyone’s ego.

While Warshafsky Law is well known in legal circles for winning record-setting judgments and securing unprecedented settlements, we’ll be the first to tell you there’s a calculus to successful lawyering. The defendants in your case, along with their lawyers and insurers, need to know you have an attorney with a track record of going the distance at trial. You must maximize their risk and their perceptions of risk.

Knowing what to push for, how far to take things, and objectively weighing the impact of all possible outcomes is part and parcel of the job. And no one knows it better than the attorneys at Warshafsky Law.

Ted wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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Warshafsky is a based-in-Milwaukee personal injury law firm serving the injured since the 1950s.

Warshafsky has brought hundreds of successful lawsuits against auto makers, drug companies and insurance companies. Many clients choose us in part because we are able and willing to fund a case fully through trial and even appeal. Insurance companies value your claim based on the quality of your lawyer. No other Wisconsin law firms boast a board-certified accident investigator and a doctor who is also a lawyer and an attorney who represented insurance companies.

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