The movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, is, in Hollywood parlance, based on a true story. Which is to say, it bears some resemblance to things that actually happened, but should not be taken as the literal truth.

The "Real" Erin Brockovich

She was born in Lawrence, Kansas to Frank Pattee, an industrial engineer and his wife Betty Jo, a journalist. Erin attended one year of Kansas State University, then transferred to a business college in Dallas, Texas, from which she earned a degree of the sort you get from such places. She seems to have had trouble settling into a career: in 1981 she worked at K-Mart for a while, then left to join Fluor Engineers and Constructors, beginning studies at the same time to become an electrical design engineer. She also entered a few beauty contests, becoming Miss Pacific Coast, but after a year dropped off the circuit and married Shawn Brown, a restaurant manager. The couple returned to Kansas, where Erin had two children, Matthew and Katie, but by 1987 they had divorced. By this time living in Reno, Nevada, Erin began to work as a secretary at a Reno brokerage firm, where she met and married stockbroker Steven Brockovich in 1989. One year and one child (Elizabeth) later, the two divorced. Erin was now in the unenviable position of being a single mother with three young children.

Injured in a traffic accident in Reno, Erin and her kids moved to southern California, where she hired a law firm, Masry and Vititoe, to handle her car accident case. She lost the case and, broke and desperate, she begged the law firm to take her on as a lowly paid file clerk. Soon after, she found some medical records in a file on a pro bono real estate case that piqued her curiosity, and she began to investigate.

Hinkley, California

The medical records in question originated from this dusty town of about 3,500 souls in the Mojave Desert. Besides Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), about whom more in a minute, other nearby concerns are methamphetamine labs, two Marine bases, a naval weapons centre, and an air force base. But most importantly for this story, PG&E, the California utilities giant. In 1952 PG&E built a pumping station near Hinkley as part of its gas-transmission system. PG&E used hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) to prevent rust from corroding its water-cooling systems, and disposed of the chemical runoff in unlined wastewater ponds until 1966, when they began to line the ponds. In 1987 PG&E did a routine check at a monitoring well north of the plant and found that its chromium had leached through the soil and into the well; the levels of Cr(VI) were ten times that allowed by state law. If this well was contaminated, all the local water supply would be, for they all draw from the same groundwater supply. PG&E reported this to state authorities, as required, and were ordered to begin to clean up their industrial pollution.

Cr(VI) is the most dangerous form of chromium, and is proven to be carcinogenic to humans if inhaled; it will cause site-specific sinus and lung problems, from nosebleeds to tumors. While some studies show that most or all Cr(VI), if ingested, is converted to harmless – indeed beneficial – trivalent chromium (Cr(III)), others have shown that it can cause nausea, ulcers, and damage to the liver and kidneys. Also, exposure to skin can lead to allergic reactions and skin ulcers. Exactly how dangerous Cr(VI) is is thus still a matter of scientific controversy.

In any case, residents of Hinkley had been suffering from a range of ailments for decades, including intestinal problems, tumors, skin rashes, and nosebleeds. Whether these complaints were caused by Cr(VI) or not, PG&E's efforts to reassure the inhabitants of Hinkley that all was well were misleading. After they were ordered to clean up the Cr(VI), they distributed a flyer to the town to reassure them, in which they said:

Chromium occurs in two forms. The form that is present in groundwater can cause health effects in high doses. The cleanup program, however, will result in chromium levels that meet the very conservative drinking water standards set by the EPA. In addition, the form of chromium that will be left on soils after irrigation is nontoxic. In fact, chromium in this form is a naturally occurring metal that is an essential ingredient in the human diet, one that is often included in multiple vitamin/mineral supplements.

Doesn't sound dangerous, does it? In fact, sounds almost beneficial! The flyer also said that "small amounts" of chromium are routinely added to cooling towers in industrial settings; in the case that was eventually filed, the plaintiffs alleged that up to 65 tons of chromium had been discharged into the ponds by 1965, and of course the discharges didn’t stop then. PG&E also claimed that they didn't know about the contamination until 1987, though most take the lining of the ponds in 1966 to show that, in fact, they did know, they just didn't do much about it. At a town meeting, PG&E employees assured Hinkley residents that their drinking water was perfectly safe, and that everything was fine.

Besides the flyers, PG&E cleanup effort in the 1990s included buying up properties in the area which might be contaminated. One resident, Roberta Walker, was offered a sum far above market value for her house; suspicious, she sought out Masry and Vititoe. This was how the whole issue came to the attention of Brockovich, who did much of the groundwork to lay the case against the giant utility company.

Note too that though the case was eventually fought against PG&E on the basis of ingestion of Cr(VI) contaminated water, some allege that the water was sprayed into the holding tanks, inevitably settling and drying on the surrounding soil, and then becoming airborne; thus it could have been inhaled.

The Case

Brockovich having made strong contacts with many of Hinkley residents, lawyer Masry stepped in. He told them that he believed that PG&E had poisoned them with Cr(VI), and that this was the cause of their varied ailments. By 1993 Brockovich and Masry had 47 clients. The terms of the contracts with the law firm gave the firm 40 per cent of any reward, and Masry filed the suit. The case went before the county court, and the first big hurdle was passed: the judge ruled that PG&E should have known about the contamination of the groundwater, and that the case could go forward to a jury. At this point, in 1994, Masry brought some big guns in on the case: Thomas Girardi, one of the state's best-connected and most powerful attorneys, and Walter Lack, a specialist in insurance bad faith and toxic tort. The plaintiff list had grown to 650, and the larger firms these two men were associated with had the resources to wage the huge case; in addition, they had had a big victory for former aerospace workers who suffered from ailments allegedly caused by carcinogens at a Lockheed plant, so they had a track record with such cases.

Girardi's advice to the residents of Hinkley was to agree to voluntary arbitration rather than wait years to have the case heard in an open court with a jury, and then face the possibility of lengthy appeals. They agreed. Arbitration is faster than a juried trial, but cases proceed behind closed doors, so the trial proceedings and the ways that decisions are reached are not made part of the public record. The public, and even the plaintiffs, don’t know exactly what evidence was permitted in the PG&E vs. Hinkley case, nor how the arguments proceeded. What we, and they, do know was that the case was decided in favour of the complainants, who were paid some $333 million in damages, the largest legal settlement in US history.

$333 million is a huge amount of money, but the lawyers received 40 per cent of the reward, about $133 million. The moneys actually received by Hinkley residents ranged from $10,000 to upwards of $1 million. There have been hard feelings in Hinkley about the settlement, especially how the specific disbursal amounts were decided – they don’t know, because that part of the process was decided in the arbitration, and not revealed to the residents. The lawyers advised town residents not to reveal to anyone other than family members the amount of their own rewards. All this has made many people suspicious of their lawyers and of each other. In addition, there have been allegations of cronyism and favours passing between the attorneys on the case and the judges. Some have argued that the whole case is a case study of why private arbitration is an erosion of the justice system.

The Movie

The Hollywood version skates clear of these controversies, and presents a heart-warming story of a working class single mom who pulls together with downtrodden townsfolk and scores a populist victory against an unfeeling corporate giant. Roberts demonstrates the function of the push-up bra, and the folly of high heels, throughout; though the heroine, she is often foul-mouthed, defensive, and rude. Still, it’s a refreshing change from the romantic comedy roles she normally takes on; she does a credible job in this movie, and won an Oscar for her efforts. Albert Finney as Masry is a crusty curmudgeon who doesn't always come straight with the volatile Brockovich, but does come through in the end. The movie introduces a love interest for Brockovich, a biker next door who lays down his leathers and takes care of her kids till he grows tired of being treated like a doormat and leaves her, and the real Erin Brockovich even gets a cameo as a diner waitress. This movie garnered Soderbergh his second big hit of 2000, along with Traffic, which won him the Best Picture Academy Award.

One unsettling aspect of the movie is that all the women in the movie – except for the sick and dying Hinkley residents – hate Brockovich. The other "girls" at the law office resent her, presumably for the visible bras and painted on miniskirts; a female lawyer is thrown in as further cat-fight fodder when the high-powered lawyer is brought in to lead the arbitration (Girardi and Lack are collapsed in to one person here; wouldn't want to confuse the viewers, I guess), and she condescends to Brockovich, who bitches back. I find this kind of gratuitous nastiness between women all too common in the media, and it saddens me, for my own experience is that whether or not I bond with particular women is dependent on our interaction, not on how they look. Showing regular-looking women as competitive and catty when faced with a sexpot is insulting and unnecessary, and detracts from the story of a woman finding a career and a purpose in her life.

Erin Again

The real Erin Brockovich has made good with the fame that has come her way since the movie. Now known as Erin Brockovich-Ellis (she married actor Eric Ellis in 1999), she holds the position of Director of Environmental Research at Masry and Vititoe, where she puts together and shepherds along other environmental lawsuits. She has received many honours for her work, including an honorary Master of Arts, Business Communication from Jones International University. In 2001 she published Take It from Me: Life's a Struggle but You Can Win written with Marc Eliot; it's one of those inspirational books on empowerment, and Erin regularly gives public talks and has appeared on Oprah, delivering the message of finding her own way in life and empowering herself.

For more information, see for a discussion of the whole Hinkley story, and a condemnation of the arbitration system for Brockovich’s corporate biography at Masry and Hitote for a story of the events leading up to the county trial on the health effects of chromium exposure for Michael Fumento’s Wall Street Journal article which attacks Brockovich and her work for Hinkley; a link to her rebuttal follows.

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