Krane Chemicals has been found guilty of contaminating the water supply of Bowmore, Mississippi and is to pay damages to the claimant bringing the case, but Krane owner, Carl Trudeau, successfully appeals the verdict. The verdict is out, delivered by a jury in the court of Judge, Harrison. Krane Chemicals has been found liable for consistently dumping harmful chemical waste in the little town of Bowmore, Mississippi. This wanton dumping was found to have contaminated the water supply, resulting in the death from cancer of the husband and son of Jeannette Baker, represented by husband and wife team, Wes and Mary Grace Payton. The legal battle took four years and now the court is awarding Jeanette damages of $41 million. The rate of cancer in Bowmore has been found to be 15 times higher than the national average. Bowmore has consequently been nicknamed ‘Cancer County'. The story proceeds with no focus on any central character.
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With the huge award to their client, the Paytons are hoping their own lives can return to normal. They are broke, heavily indebted to the bank, and operating from an abandoned store, while living in modest rented accommodation. However, Krane Chemicals' owner, Carl Trudeau, who is based in New York, is having none of it. He is determined that not a penny will reach Jeannette and her lawyers, or the multitudes of other plaintiffs and their trail lawyers. The Paytons have at least 30 other related cases.
Stocks in all Carl Trudeau's companies fall and he loses $1 billion in one day. Carl wants to remain rich and besides, he needs to maintain his expensive third wife, Bianca, whose daily needs, from trainer to nutritionist, costs $800 a day.
Carl resolves to appeal against the liability judgment at the Mississippi Supreme Court. He wants the judgment reversed altogether, and he enlists the services of a shadowy figure called Rinehart who's team are experts at interfering in campaigns for Supreme Court elections. The Mississippi Supreme Court has nine judges, and Rinehart's investigations have shown that they will most likely be split 5:4 against Krane, in the event of the appeal. Justice Sheila McCarthy, a known moderate, is deemed to be the problem. It is believed that she will cast the decisive vote that will defeat the Krane appeal as she's done in similar cases. However, Sheila is due for reelection to the Supreme Court in 12 months, (six months before the Krane appeal comes up) and Rinehart assures Carl that if he can have her replaced by a judge sympathetic to corporate clients facing liability cases, Carl will get the reversal he needs. Carl is to pay $8 million for this service but the money will not be traced back to him.
Rinehart puts together a team to look for a suitable candidate to challenge Sheila for her seat. Ron Fisk fits the bill perfectly. He is white, a married Christian, and a Conservative. Additionally, his firm has no affiliation to any trial lawyers. Sheila, on the other hand, is divorced, known to have affairs on the side, and is close to trial lawyers in liability cases. She also has nothing against gays, but is opposed to guns and the death penalty. Rinehart and his crew whip up frenzy against Sheila's lifestyle and ideals. She's presented as a dangerous liberal who's against family values and is sympathetic to criminals. Most of all, she's projected as an enemy of big business. Meanwhile, as the stock in his company falls, Carl is secretly buying it up again.
Money and support pour into the Fisk campaign from corporate business and illegally from Carl Trudeau and other out-of-state sources. Fisk, himself, proves to be an excellent public speaker and soon has many ordinary people in the palm of his hand. The only financial and moral support Sheila is able to muster (which is not much) is from the trial lawyers who have much to lose if the appeal is won by Krane. Rinehart and his team go after the trial lawyers as well and present them as greedy and self-serving. Ron Fisk briefly shows discomfort at the dirty tricks being employed in his campaign and the unclear sources of much of its funding, but he is soon caught up in the glory of his new image and status.
Weeks before the election, and to ward off suspicion of its real intent, Krane Chemicals makes settlement overtures to all present and potential claimants in the Krane case. An elaborate meeting is set up but before any real decisions can be made, Krane pulls out of the negotiations citing the ‘unrealistic' demands of the plaintiff's lawyers.
The elections for the Supreme Court take place. Sheila is soundly beaten by Ron Fisk and she retreats into private practice. Four months before the Krane appeal, Ron Fisk takes office as Supreme Court judge and begins to perform exactly as he's expected to. He helps reverse a number of liability verdicts. But tragedy suddenly strikes his family. While participating in a ball game, Ron's son, Josh, is struck with a ball on the temple. He receives treatment but will never be the same again, mentally. Ironically, Ron now has the option of suing the manufacturers of the offending bat and the hospital that treated Josh, initially, but mixed up his records so his deterioration couldn't be arrested in a timely manner. Ron Fisk now has a sense of how the victims in liability cases must feel. He's plagued by indecision. There is a buzz of excitement in Bowmore at these developments. Since the boot is now on the other foot, perhaps Ron will cast his vote in their favor in the upcoming appeal.
Ron Fisk keeps delaying making a decision on the Krane Appeal as he wrestles with his conscience. But finally, because so much money was spent on his election, he resignedly votes in favor of reversing the liability charge. Krane Chemicals wins its appeal. All the people who were hoping the vote would go the other way are devastated. Ron also does not sue over his son's case.
The story ends with Carl celebrating his success with a lavish party aboard his yacht. Krane stocks are high again. His net worth is past $3 billion. He's also regained all the money he dished out for the Fisk campaign and is contemplating ways of becoming richer still.
An interesting and convincing step by step account of how big money can be secretly used to decide an election and of the dirty tricks involved. The small guys with little money but a legitimate case can't hope to compete. The reader feels as helpless as they do and just as disappointed when the big guys don't get their comeuppance at the end. But a fairy tale ending might have detracted from Grisham's unmistakable moral message.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked this story because it was a detailed account on how elections to the Supreme Court may become subverted. The story is also told from different perspectives so that there is a balanced view of the process
Best scene in story:
When Krane Chemicals makes a pretence at a settlement with all prospective claimants in the Krane case. The various trial lawyers turn up demanding a lead in the negotiation. There's bickering over pinching of clients, a lot of yelling and the risk of fists flying, as the self-important lawyers jostle for position. When it's finally decided that the class actions will get the lowest priority, there's danger of another eruption. The scene is told with plenty of humor.
Opinion about the main character:
The problem is that there is no main character. There are at least five characters that take centre stage in different parts of the book but the reader doesn't get to know any of them well. Each goes for several pages at a time with barely a mention. If I were to comment on the Paytons, I would say they should have been more vibrant throughout but they are reduced to bystanders. Their relationship on both a professional and personal level is pretty dull. Ron Fisk hasn't much of a conscience and Carl is too self-satisfied. Sheila is perhaps the most convincing of the lot. She's feisty and put s up a spirited fight to save her job at the Supreme Court.