Erin Go Away! The Myth Behind the Movie Lives On

By Michael Fumento

The National Review, March 21, 2001
Copyright 2001 The National Review

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What coincidental timing!

On March 8, three weeks before the Academy Awards, Universal Pictures announced a $100,000 donation to UCLA "establishing a program to help students pursue studies in environmental and social justice."

The purpose, said the corporation’s press release, is to recognize "The crusading efforts of [Erin] Brockovich and [attorney Ed] Masry on behalf of the citizens of a small Southern California town plagued by illnesses caused by contaminated groundwater [that] served as the basis for Universal Pictures’ acclaimed motion picture, Erin Brockovich."

The $100,000 was certainly small change compared to the amounts studios often spend to promote a movie that’s contending for Oscars, and the stakes here are tremendous with Erin Brockovich up for five awards.

But by promoting in this manner a truly entertaining movie, Universal is lionizing two truly villainous people.

Long before he met Brockovich, Masry handled a toxic tort suit in which he defended polluters of a lake in Riverside, California. He even compared the environmental officials to the Gestapo.

Yet three of the five defendants quickly pled guilty.

Masry was already well known in California, having been charged in 1981 with stealing from a religious cult he represented in order to bribe the lieutenant governor.

He was acquitted of the bribery charge but convicted of the theft. An appeals court then overturned the theft charge on a technicality (lack of a speedy trial) and the charges were dropped. Thus, Masry got off but was never acquitted.

"I’ll get away with it! I always do!"

Far from being "environmental crusaders" as the media now routinely calls them, Masry and Brockovich have never crusaded for anything but lucre.

In the case depicted in the film, Masry’s firm along with two huge L.A. firms, convinced residents of Hinkley, California that virtually any illness they had ever suffered was from a chemical called chromium 6 that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had let seep into the water.

This includes (among other illnesses) nosebleeds, breast cancer, rashes, lymphatic cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, lupus, stress, chronic fatigue, miscarriages, gastrointestinal cancer, Crohn’s disease, spinal deterioration, kidney tumors, ovarian tumors, and "intestines eaten away," which sounds awful but doesn’t describe a real disease.

Obviously these can’t all be related. Moreover, the lengthy discussion of chromium 6 on the EPA’s website , the agency that sets drinking-water standards, concludes: "No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium 6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure."

To quote from those ubiquitous t-shirts, "What part of ’NO’ don’t you understand?"

The literature does show is that chromium 6 can cause lung and nasal cancer in workers who inhaled massive amounts over many years; even as it reveals numerous studies of persons near living near toxic-waste sites jam-packed with chromium 6 who had no increased level of any type of disease.

Indeed, California’s Cancer Registry found the same was true of Hinkley.

Brockovich claims she has "200 studies" that back her up, but don’t ask her to see them. Others have tried and failed.

The motivation of the three law firms was neither truth nor compassion, but rather 40 percent of the winnings. Their "take" from the settlement was $133 million plus an amazing $10 million more in expenses. Brockovich’s bonus alone was $2 million.

Justice doth have its rewards.

To understand why the bad guys won, it’s important to know that the case was a settlement not subject to appeal, that PG&E was suffering terrible publicity, and that as a utility it could simply pass losses on to rate payers.

But when these same three firms, including the Masry-Brockovich team, tried the same ploy in the court system against a company with no guaranteed income, it collapsed like a rotten pumpkin.

When jet fighter maker Lockheed Martin fought back against Ed and Erin, it won.

Last April a California appeals court tossed out their case against Lockheed Martin, decertifying the class of plaintiffs. A major part of the ruling was because of the obvious absurdity of saying that any ill person in a given geographical area can be allowed to claim that a groundwater contaminant caused their sickness.

But what of the Hinkley residents, who were truly victimized by Masry and Brockovich? Our heroes convinced these poor families that they had been poisoned and were now ticking time bombs of disease. From their slice of the award, the disbursements appear utterly arbitrary.

One man who required a foot of colon to be removed collected $100,000 while a woman who endured the same operation got about $2 million. A plaintiff offered Salon.com’s Kathy Sharp an explanation for the disbursement pattern: "If you were buddies with Ed and Erin, you got a lot of money. Otherwise, forget it."

A Time magazine reporter in Hinkley heard similar complaints.

"Give me a break!" moaned one resident after seeing the film. "They depicted the lawyers as so concerned about the residents," she said. "But does [Brockovich] really care?"

Ultimately, several plaintiffs hired new lawyers to sue their original ones, only to find their new attorneys instantly countersued. One of the newly retained attorneys said of the film, "I read the script; the only true part was Erin Brockovich’s name."

Now activist Erin has two new crusades.

One is against mold.

"I feel so sorry ’bout that $600,000 Erin had to spend on toxic mold!"

Bizarrely, she has just testified before a California Senate health committee that her house is filled with mold that makes her sick and has cost her $600,000 in renovations. Sounds like a personal problem, lady. The non-nouveau riche Hinkley residents in $25,000 homes must be just heartbroken for her.

The other crusade is from podium to podium, whence she gives talks for as much as $25,000 a pop. Brockovich stands to earn up to $1 million this year this way, according to Forbes. Plus she has a book deal and two TV series in the works.

Poor Ed, on the other hand, is only starring in one series, Fox’s Power of Attorney, although he did win a seat on the Thousand Oaks, California city council. He only had to spend $150,000 of his own money on his campaign.

Actually, perhaps Erin and Ed do deserve beatification. After all, spinning greed into gold and glory is quite a miracle.

Read the Brockovich saga:


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on pollution and on cancer.