A Civil Action (1998) A Civil Action is based on a true story. John Travolta plays a personal-injury lawyer who hosts a radio show. In response to a call from a woman representing a group of parents in Woburn, Massachusetts, he comes face-to-face with a horrible case of industrial pollution. Many parents in the town have lost children to leukemia. They believe a local factory dumping waste chemicals into the city’s water supply caused the disease. At first, Travolta doesn’t want to get involved. He tells the families that a lawsuit makes sense only if the defendant has a lot of money or a large insurance policy. However, on his way home from his meeting with the parents, he gets caught speeding on a freeway. By chance, he notices trucks and railway cars streaming by bearing the logos of W. R. Grace and Beatrice Food. He suddenly realizes that the plant is associated with two large corporations and that he and the parents can make a great deal of money in this case. White-collar crime doesn’t get as much attention as other kinds of crime, but A Civil Action casts a spotlight on the problem. In addition, it shows some reasons why prosecuting large corporations is difficult. In the first place, corporations can afford to hire brilliant legal minds, such as the lawyer played by Robert Duvall in A Civil Action. Second, because of the difficulty of finding evidence— the frequent absence of a “smoking gun”—proving a case of corporate crime is often hard. Third, corporations are in a financial position to offer out-of-court settlements without admitting their guilt. This is what happens in A Civil Action. The lawyer played by Travolta finally finds a W. R. Grace worker who admits dumping toxic chemicals. Although the corporation is willing to offer a modest out-of-court settlement, its executives refuse to admit responsibility and apologize for their negligence. Meanwhile, Travolta’s firm spends all its resources prosecuting the case, and Travolta finds himself virtually penniless. The movie ends well, however. Travolta manages to get the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interested in the Woburn case, and the EPA lawyers succeed in their appeal. As you think about white-collar crime, you should contrast it with street crime. You should also consider the way both types of crime are portrayed in the movies. For example, in Pulp Fiction, also starring John Travolta, we get an inside view of the world of organized and street crime, including the drug trade, racketeering, and gambling. The filmmaker introduces the viewer to the character behind each criminal act. The characters are often made to seem likable or at least interesting. Nonetheless, most viewers would insist on stiff penalties for drug trading or murder. In contrast, in A Civil Action, we never see the faces of the people responsible for the negligence that led to the deaths of the children. Many members of the public are indifferent to corporate crimes, although they may kill more people than street crimes. Why do you think white-collar and street crimes are portrayed so differently in the movies? Why do you think most members of the public think so differently about the two types of crime?
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