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Feature Article - February 2000

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Chris Jackson is an Associate Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She teaches writing, literature, and music history.







Lawyers allegedly held the award money for nearly six months before it was dispersed. Hinkley residents received no explanation for the delay. They had lost Erin as an advocate: "suddenly, they couldn’t get through to anyone, not even Brockovich.












Art is not real life, although we bring the same interpretive processes to each. 


Erin Brockovich: True Fiction and False Facts

By Chris Jackson


   As Erin Brockovich ends, justice goes to the little guy, and the previously broke, single mother Erin opens a bonus check with more zeroes than she expected. Hooray for the legal system! But before we pop the corks, how does this triumphant ending fit the facts? The answer could be "badly." Since the label "true story" is a part of the film’s marketing and adds to its impact, a look at the actual case prompts an obvious, but often overlooked point: Art may imitate real life, but it can be misleading to mistake one for the other.

   Several articles on Erin Brockovich already appear in Picturing Justice. Julia Roberts’ latest star turn as the flouncy paralegal who shoots and scores against a corporate Goliath offers something for everybody. Judith Grant emphasizes the film’s skewed take on class and gender politics (www.usfca.edu/pj/brockovich-grant.htm). Michael Asimow applauds how the film equates justice with fairness and champions supporting players of the law who "stand in the shadow of lawyers" (www.usfca.edu/pj/brockovich-asimow.htm). We even have a comparative legal systems approach. Ysiah Ross includes no discussion of dingos and babies, fortunately, but he speculates on how events might have a different outcome with "Erin Brockovich in Australia" (www.usfca.edu/pj/brockovich-ross.htm). Each commentator takes a different interpretive tack, but all nod approvingly toward the film’s basis in "reality."

   The real-life aftermath to events portrayed in Erin provides a sobering twist on this "true story." A month after this film opened, Salon magazine presented a lengthy article examining the actual case that Erin Brockovich and her boss Ed Masry had begun against Pacific Gas & Electric (www.salon.com/ent/feature/2000/04/14/sharp/index.html).

   Author Kathleen Sharp conducted numerous interviews with residents of Hinkley, California, the town affected by PG&E’s alleged ecological negligence. She spoke with over twenty judges and attorneys familiar with the case that became Anderson v. PG&E. In addition, Sharp had access to letters the plaintiffs received from their lawyers, updating them on the case.

   Sharp’s article tells us what we may not want to hear. While the real Erin Brockovich basks in the glow of the film’s successful reception, giving interviews and appearing on Oprah, the bitter citizens of Hinkley California have allegedly hired new attorneys and are preparing to file a spate of lawsuits against Erin’s firm.

   According to Sharp’s account, the legal profession falls down on the job. Erin et al guided the Hinkley residents into seeking justice via private arbitration. This procedure is supposed to cut court costs and streamline the process. Instead, Sharp provides substantial evidence that arbitration played a key role in undermining the awards to deserving Hinkley residents. Sharp notes, "The formula for disbursing the money has been kept secret, as has the entire transcript of the arbitration proceeding." Sharp alleges that residents were supposed to receive awards based on medical bills, but in many cases, no medical records were examined. One resident said the major criterion for getting a larger settlement was being "buddies with Ed and Erin."

   Lawyers allegedly held the award money for nearly six months before it was dispersed. Hinkley residents received no explanation for the delay. They had lost Erin as an advocate: "suddenly, they couldn’t get through to anyone, not even Brockovich." Because of the secrecy imposed on the arbitration process, Sharp makes the case that it’s impossible to determine where interest on the award money went. Where’s the rest of our money? plaintiff Carol Smith asked. Many legitimate questions about the award disbursement remain unanswered.

   Residents had agreed that their lawyers, Erin’s firm among them, would receive 40 % of the settlement. However, Sharp’s account indicates that lawyers later billed their clients an extra ten million dollars "for expenses." Despite being asked, the firms supposedly failed to provide an itemization for the bill. Sharp’s article alleges that another financial irregularity cropped up in the percentage of lawyers’ fees charged to children. California Law says that attorneys may take a quarter of settlement fees to minors. In this case, arbitrators supposedly allotted the lawyers a third.

  Sharp’s article questions the integrity of Brockovich’s research on chromium 6, the "smoking gun" of PG&E’s liability. Sharp quotes a Federal toxicologist as saying that it is "very unlikely" that drinking water laced with chromium 6, even long-term, would result in cancer. Other sites abroad and in this country do not corroborate cancer-causing properties in water with chromium 6. Again, the secrecy of the arbitration meetings hamstrings attempts to evaluate support for the plaintiffs’ claims.

   A report about Erin Brockovich the real person, not Julia Roberts, appeared in Entertainment Weekly (5/12/00). Several male acquaintance of Brockovich, one of whom was portrayed as a supportive, upstanding character in the film, allegedly demanded that Brockovich pay them off. Otherwise, they would supply the tabloids with a story that Brockovich and Ed Masry had had an affair and that Brockovich was an unfit mother. Both Brockovich and Masry cooperated in an FBI sting operation, which led to the men being arrested for extortion.

   Art is not real life, although we bring the same interpretive processes to each. Where does fact end and fiction begin? Whether direct or virtual, all experiences contain a soupy blend of the two. Through many "tastings," we learn to savor all the ingredients.

   The real case of Anderson versus Pacific Gas & Electric fails to live up to the positive image of legal practitioners in Erin Brockovich. Does this take away from the film? I don’t think so, nor should it. But neither should a film’s claim to replicate an actual event presage its value. As much as we applaud Erin’s triumphs, Hollywood has a long history of fulfilling dreams, but they are still dreams, however much we want to believe them.


Posted May 30, 2000

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