An uncivil action: Former Woburn tanner sues author, publishers

Published in the Boston Phoenix on January 8, 1999. Copyright © by the Boston Phoenix Inc. All rights reserved.

By Dan Kennedy

On Monday, just five days before the nationwide release of the film A Civil Action, the author of the book on which it was based was hit with a libel suit.

Former Woburn tannery owner John Riley is suing Jonathan Harr, author of the 1995 bestseller; Random House, the book’s hardcover publisher; and Vintage Books, the Random House subsidiary that published the paperback. The suit was filed in Rockingham County Superior Court on behalf of Riley and his wife, Diana Riley, who now live in Seabrook Beach, New Hampshire. The Rileys are being represented by their son, Peter Riley.

John Riley was one of the principals in the 1986 Woburn toxic-waste trial. Attorney Jan Schlichtmann, representing eight Woburn families, claimed that W.R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods Company were responsible for contaminating two drinking-water wells with industrial solvents, causing six leukemia deaths and numerous other illnesses.

Though Riley was not a defendant — he had sold his property, and thus his liability, to Beatrice in 1978, just a few months before the wells were closed — it was his management of the tannery that was at issue in the trial. The Woburn families charged that Riley had used a vacant 15-acre property owned by the tannery as a chemical dumping ground. Riley vehemently denied it. Following a 78-day trial, a federal district-court jury found that Grace had negligently contaminated the wells. Judge Walter Jay Skinner set aside the verdict for technical reasons, and Grace settled with the families for $8 million. The jury dismissed the case against Beatrice.

Riley’s lawsuit claims 12 specific instances of libel. The first — and the one Peter Riley identified in an interview as “probably the main claim” — is that Harr erroneously reported that Skinner “found that Riley had committed perjury” during the post-trial process. “That’s clearly untrue,” Peter Riley says.

But though Riley may have a point, the court record is harshly critical of his father’s conduct. In 1989, Skinner conducted hearings ordered by the US Court of Appeals after Schlichtmann learned that the results of tests John Riley had run on his property had been improperly withheld from him during pretrial discovery. Although Skinner did not rule that Riley had perjured himself, he did find that Riley and his lawyer, Mary Ryan, had engaged in “deliberate misconduct” by withholding the results. The judge added: “Even allowing for Mr. Riley’s apparent unsophistication and inarticulateness, I conclude that the pattern of evasive answers concerning these reports and other documents by Mr. Riley requires a finding that the concealment was deliberate.” (Unfortunately for Schlichtmann and his clients, Skinner also ruled that Riley’s and Ryan’s misconduct did not warrant a new trial.)

Many of the other allegations in Riley’s libel suit concern Harr’s reporting on Schlichtmann’s opinion of Riley, and assertions in the book that cast Riley in a bad light. (Two examples recounted in Riley’s court filing: ” ‘My God, this is the guy who killed your kids!’ yelled Neville.” ” ‘They’re dumping stuff in the middle of the night,’ Ruth recalled his saying.”)

Harr, reached at his home in Northampton, declined to comment. His lawyer, Lucy Karl, of the Concord, New Hampshire-based firm of Shaheen & Gordon, says, “I think it [Riley’s suit] has no merit, and we will vigorously contest it.” The suit has already been moved to federal court at Karl’s request (Peter Riley says he has no objection), and Karl says she will soon file pretrial motions aimed at getting the case dismissed.

The lawsuit charges Harr and his publishers with “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” slander, defamation, two counts of invasion of privacy, and loss of consortium. It does not specify how much in damages is being sought.

When asked why he had waited more than three years after the book’s publication to file suit, Peter Riley replied, “My folks didn’t become aware of the defamatory statements until recently. I don’t believe that my father had ever read the book.” Asked why he wasn’t pursuing a similar action against the makers of the film, he replied that neither he nor his parents have seen it yet, but that he is not ruling out a second lawsuit.

The past several years have been “a very difficult time for my folks,” says Riley. “They were crucified by yourself in the Woburn Times, and by Jonathan Harr and Jan Schlichtmann.” (I covered the trial and its aftermath for Woburn’s Daily Times Chronicle and have written about it for the Phoenix.) “He’s a really good guy,” Riley says of his father, “and he’s been maligned.”

Peter Riley’s comments reminded me of something Charlie Ryan told me recently. “Everybody came out of this damaged — emotionally, physically, financially. Even John Riley,” said Ryan, a Woburn native who also covered the case for the Times Chronicle. “He was a gruff, domineering, controlling person, but before all this happened he employed a lot of people and was a good, civic-minded citizen.” He paused before concluding: “I’m disappointed that we don’t have any answers.”