The Real Gal

January 01, 2001  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes  ·  Brockovich, erin

The millions who watched the Academy Awards may be forgiven if they remember little about Erin Brockovich — the human, not the celluloid character. Reason: Julia Roberts, Oscar winner for Best Actress, never once in her acceptance speech mentioned the woman who brought Pacific Gas & Electric to heel for polluting the water in Hinkley, Calif. with chromium 6, a heavy metal the utility used to flush out its pipes.

Roberts was more generous at the Golden Globe honors back in January, when she exclaimed, "Erin Brockovich, the real gal, is awesome, and should be a lesson that we’re all powerful individuals who can make a difference in the world."

Since getting her $2 million bonus for the Hinkley case, Erin’s assets have grown considerably.

Yes, indeed. Team Brockovich — Masry & Vititoe, home to Erin and her celebrated boss, attorney Edward L. Masry, along with giant L.A. law firms Girardi & Keese and Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack — pocketed 40% of $333 million, plus $10 million in costs, after PG&E submitted to arbitration in 1995. The team has been very busy ever since, scouring densely populated areas in California for suspected culprits with deep pockets.

In 1997 and 1998 the team targeted Rocketdyne, a Boeing unit in Canoga Park, Calif. The suits alleged toxic exposure to various chemicals, including cleaning agents and rocket fuel.

Rocketdyne fought back. It defeated the team’s attempt to certify a class in the first case, and got it barred on the statute of limitations. In the second case, Erin & Co. won on the statute of limitations issue. Each side appealed; Rocketdyne won both cases.

That’s because, as a different California appellate court put it, individual symptoms or illnesses must be connected to a particular exposure to a toxic substance. A grab-bag of plaintiffs who might have anything from a brain tumor to a nosebleed — and who may have lived near the site of something potentially toxic — doesn’t constitute a class.

Meantime, though, Team Brockovich was trying to take down Lockheed Martin, a fat and seemingly easy target.

The Only Client Erin & Ed Fight For

The defense contractor had already paid settlements of $33 million in a class action brought by Girardi & Keese.So in 1996 Team Brockovich filed suit in Redlands, Calif. on behalf of 50,000 to 100,000 people exposed to water contaminated with any one of more than 18 substances "for one or more years from 1955 to the present."

The trial court certified a class and an appellate court overturned the decision. The plaintiffs are bringing it to the California Supreme Court.

None of this has deterred the cancer crusaders. They still have two class actions against their old nemesis, PG&E. This time the damages could well surpass the original suit: Some 1,500 people in the town of Hinkley and at Kettleman Station — where PG&E has a plant — now claim they were affected by chromium 6.

Never mind the recent court setbacks or the assertion by the Environmental Protection Agency on its toxic-substance website that "no data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium 6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure."

There’s a principle at stake. As Masry told the Ventura County Star in March, "Let’s face it, there’s a lot of money in [toxic tort suits], and I’d be lying if I said I don’t like the money."