Originally created 08/13/97

Victims' families fight back after being left out of movie deal



WOBURN, Mass. (AP) - Several families who went to court to make chemical companies pay for polluting their water and killing their children never got the compensation they wanted in their lengthy battle.

But their story became a best-seller. And now "A Civil Action" will be a movie. Once again, the families aren't getting much.

So they're pushing for a Massachusetts law that would require movie producers to get permission before making movies about their lives.

What the families say they really want is for the movie to focus more on the story of their children, not just the story of the court battle, which was the core of the 1995 book by Jonathan Harr.

"Once the trial started, I don't think the plight of the children ever got discussed. It was just all legal maneuvering back and forth, very frustrating," said Kevin Kane, one of the parents who sued. "Now it's not going to be told, either. It will be the same thing as what happened in the trial."

Disney filmmakers are expected to spend millions of dollars to put

John Travolta in the role of Jan Schlichtmann, the families' crusading, risk-taking lawyer who is the central character in the book.

But they haven't paid anything to the eight families in this town north of Boston, who began the David-vs.-Goliath legal battle in 1982 after their children mysteriously fell ill. Five of them eventually died.

Schlichtmann had hoped to win hundreds of millions of dollars, contending discarded chemicals from nearby companies seeped into

well water and led to a breakout of leukemia.

But no conclusive link was ever found. And Unifirst Corp., which ran a dry cleaning plant, settled out of court for $1 million.

Industrial giant W.R. Grace settled with the families part-way through the 1986 trial for $8 million, but the company denied any wrongdoing.

Both settlements were viewed by the families as disappointments.

After legal fees were taken out, they split only about half the money.

The families' proposed law, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, would require that people give written permission when their name, picture, voice, or life story is used in movies, TV shows and plays. In cases of unauthorized use, the person could sue.

The movie industry says the bill goes too far.

"This really strikes at the heart of free expression and the First Amendment," said Vans Stevenson, vice president for state legislation at the Motion Picture Association of America.

Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci said he would likely veto the law because of its chilling effect on First Amendment rights. A bill passed in both the House and Senate in informal session this year.

Harr himself, while sympathetic to the families, called the bill

"the end of movie making, the end of TV drama" and a threat to journalism.

Disney spokeswoman Terry Curtin said the movie simply wasn't about the families.

"We bought the rights to the book and we are making the story of Jan Schlichtman," he said. "We are not making the families' story. Our movie starts when the case is being filed."

Still, for Kane, whose son underwent nine years of treatments for leukemia and is now a healthy 25-year-old, the whole controversy brings back some bad memories.

"Some feel frustrated they went through all those years. And now they'll have the movie - their story - told without any input at all from them?"