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When Schlichtmann became involved with the Toms River situation about a year ago, he once again advised the families to adopt nonconfrontational tactics. The parties agreed to an 18-month legal moratorium while the problem is investigated. During this period, federal and state officials have been taking water samples and analyzing data. Government toxicologists will work cooperatively with a Union Carbide scientist and one hired by the community. And parents have been talking directly with Union Carbide and Ciba Chemicals.
Linda Gillick, Michael's mother, says it has taken an emotional toll on her to sit down with the companies she believes may be responsible for her son's condition. But after reading A Civil Action, she was convinced that litigation would be worse. "I don't want a judge to sit up there and decide testimony can't be given by the families that were affected," she says. Gillick believes the negotiations have already given the families more facts about the situation in Toms River than they would have gleaned from years of court proceedings. "The cooperative approach means everything," she says. "Shouting and screaming doesn't do a thing." Ciba and Union Carbide dispute the allegations against them. "We see no evidence that the groundwater on this site is associated with the childhood cancers," says Donna Jakubowski, director of external affairs for Ciba. But they too may be better off talking with the families than defending a high-stakes lawsuit.
It's tempting to trace Schlichtmann's redemption to a particularly painful scene in the movie version of A Civil Action. While the jury is deliberating, a defense lawyer takes a $20 bill out of his pocket and asks Schlichtmann how he would feel about settling the case for that bill plus six zeros, or $20,000,000. Schlichtmann spurns the offer--and then the jury comes back with a verdict exonerating that defendant. Schlichtmann insists the scene did not happen that way in real life, and that the defendants never would have paid $20 million to settle the case. True or not, the vignette drives home an important point: settlement is usually simpler, less costly and certainly far more predictable than taking an environmental-law case to a jury.
The hard part about negotiation is that all parties need to agree for it to work. Toms River and Brookhaven are still in the easy stage: talking and exchanging information. If negotiations break down, Schlichtmann could find himself back in federal court. The prospect of reliving the case that made him famous is not something he looks forward to. "Woburn was a war, a nine-year war, and like all wars it was wasteful and destructive," says Schlichtmann. "Like any veteran, you come out saying 'Why war?'"