Judge Skinner's Controversial Rulings
There have been numerous articles written about Judge Skinner's handling of the Woburn toxic trial. Some articles expressed the opinion that Judge Skinner stacked the deck against the plaintiffs, while others credit his actions as effectively attempting to resolve the conflict between the parties. Judge Skinner was well aware of the precedent his case would set, so he proceeded cautiously and by some accounts conservatively.
A Summary of Judge Skinner's RulingsJudge Skinner presented many controversial rulings during the trial process that have been extensively reviewed by educators and litigators since the trial. Some of the more significant rulings include:
Judge Skinner's Controversial Rulings in the Woburn Trial
In September 1985 Judge Skinner invoked a gag order on the parties, prohibiting them to speak publicly regarding the discovery and upcoming trial issues. This action was viewed as an advantage to Beatrice and Grace, because it prohibited the plaintiffs attorneys from gaining public sympathy by openly speaking about the information obtained during discovery and other issues related to the victims conditions. However, media exposure via newsprint, magazines and television caused Judge Skinner to lift the order in February 1986.
Judge Skinner used Rule 22 as his basis to split the trial into three parts. He defended his decision by because he believed the trial issues were very complex and likely too difficult for a jury to understand. By breaking the trial into three, in his view, logical phases, he believed the jury would be able to understand the issues. Skinner believed if the trial proceeded in phases, the jurors would make effective decisions. The first phase was intended to connect contamination identified on the defendant's properties with water extracted from Wells G and H. If the jury agreed the contaminants from the defendants' properties did impact wells G and H, the trial would proceed to the second phase which would evaluate causation between contamination of municipal wells G and H, and the contaminates distribution in Woburn's water supply system, and the health issues claimed by the plaintiffs. The third phase of the trial would then establish damages associated to the groundwater and health impacts. The defendants would have to be found liable at the conclusion of each phase for the trial to proceed to a subsequent phase. Although many experts who reviewed the trial agreed that the structure invoked by Judge Skinner put a logical sequence to the massive amount of trial activities, many believed the strength of the plaintiffs' case, having family members of the victims testify before the jury, was intentionally placed into the latter stages of the trial to delay its emotional impact.
At the conclusion of Phase 1, the jury found W.R. Grace liable of contaminating municipal Wells G and H and found Beatrice Foods not liable. This finding, in essence, dismissed Beatrice from the case, and gave notice to Grace that it would continue into Phase 2 of the trial. Following a motion for a mistrial by W.R. Grace, Judge Skinner announced on a Friday that he would declare a mistrial on Monday. Over the weekend, the plaintiffs and W.R. Grace reached a settlement, negating the trial from proceeding to Phase 2 and the assessment of the difficult question of causation.