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The untold Erin Brockovich story

"Erin Brockovich": The real story
In the movie, the victims in the celebrated lawsuit won big. In reality, many are wondering where the money went -- and they're mad at their lawyers.

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By Kathleen Sharp

April 14, 2000 |   The Julia Roberts film "Erin Brockovich" is in its fourth week as one of the most popular movies in America. It's billed as being based on a true story. But the film tells only half of it -- and the half it doesn't tell isn't pretty.

The film is about a down-on-her-luck but defiant, twice-divorced, working-class mother of three. As a lowly clerk in a small, private law firm, she independently starts looking into a case involving pollution in the small town of Hinkley, Calif. In the movie, the foul-mouthed, full-cleavaged Brockovich travels to the town on her own initiative, investigates the case with the help of dogged smarts and a few low-cut dresses and persuades her employer to take on the case. When he joins forces with a big-time Los Angeles law firm, she defiantly resists. In time, her street smarts outbalance the incompetent, unfeeling lawyers at the downtown firm, and the residents come out with a $333 million award -- and Brockovich herself gets a check for $2 million.

The truth is different. That's not unusual for Hollywood, and doesn't mean that the film -- which has garnered favorable reviews -- is bad.

But many plaintiffs in the Hinkley case say the movie misrepresents what happened. Far from being the populist victory the movie depicts, the Hinkley lawsuit was a case study in how the rise of private arbitration, as an alternative to costly public trials, is creating a two-tiered legal system that not only favors litigants who can afford it over those who cannot, but is open to potential conflicts of interest and cronyism. The case never went to trial, because Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility accused of polluting Hinkley, and the plaintiffs' lawyers agreed to private arbitration before a panel of for-hire judges, some of whom had socialized with the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Now, many of the townspeople who sued complain their awards were smaller than they deserved. Some have even hired lawyers to get back excessive legal fees charged to children. They say the attorneys kept their awards for six months after the settlement money was delivered, and that they didn't receive interest on it. They complain that there was little or no apparent logic behind the varying amounts of money individual plaintiffs received; some claim that the arbitrators never even looked at their medical records.

Some of these charges and complaints are the predictable result of the sudden, uneven disbursement of a lot of money into a small town. But evaluating these charges is difficult to do, because the arbitration process is shrouded in secrecy. The formula for disbursing the money has been kept secret, as has the entire transcript of the arbitration proceeding. Had the case gone to trial, the transcript and the disbursement would be a matter of public record.

After the settlement, the Hinkley plaintiffs' attorneys took some of the arbitrators in the case on a steeply discounted Mediterranean luxury cruise. The fraternization between the private judges and the plaintiffs' lawyers led California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George to begin a study of the business of arbitration. And while Brockovich appears on "Oprah," some townspeople are preparing for a new round of lawsuits -- this time against their former lawyers, including Brockovich's firm.

The following report is based on interviews with scores of residents of Hinkley, and more than two dozen judges and attorneys. Every effort was made to elicit comment from the powerful attorneys who represented the residents of the town. Two were ultimately interviewed; in both cases the conversations were short and explosive and terminated abruptly by the lawyers. What comments they did make in the case are included below. PG&E;, as well, declined to comment.

"The movie is mostly lies," said Carol Smith, one of the real-life plaintiffs. "I wish the truth would come out because a lot of us are upset. I understand the movie is going to make Erin and the attorneys out to be heroes.

"But where's the rest of our money?"

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That question echoes from many of the 650 plaintiffs in the case that became Anderson vs. PG&E.; The tale started in Hinkley, a town of about 3,500 in the Mojave Desert about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Residents here are surrounded by methamphetamine labs and live next to two Marine bases, downstream from a huge naval weapons center, and 20 miles east of Edwards Air Force Base. Over the last 15 or 20 years, many of the residents have also drunk, bathed and swam in water polluted by a chemical called chromium 6.

They suffer many physical ailments, including bloody noses, various intestinal ailments, bad backs, rotten teeth and tumors. In 1952, PG&E; built a pumping station on 20 acres near town as part of its enormous gas-transmission system. The station pumped natural gas through an artery of pipes stretching from the Texas Panhandle to the San Francisco Bay Area; the system served PG&E; customers in much of the state's Central Valley.

The company used the chromium to prevent rust from corroding its water-cooling system. The chemical runoff was disposed of in unlined wastewater ponds. (After 1966, the utility lined its ponds.) In 1987, during what the company claims was a routine check, PG&E; found that its chromium had leaked into the water supply. In December 1987 it reported its findings to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, as required. The board ordered the utility to clean up the pollution.

In the early 1990s PG&E; undertook a $12.5 million cleanup effort, approaching the owners of three farms and 10 houses in the area and offering to buy their properties.

Roberta Walker was one of the people approached by PG&E;, which offered to buy her house (valued at $25,000 at the time) for $60,000. She said she didn't want to sell. When the utility asked her for a figure, she blurted out $250,000. A few weeks later, the company agreed.

The quick acceptance made her suspicious. That's when she started searching for a lawyer. Through a friend, she found Masry & Vititoe, a personal-injury firm in Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles. At the time, Erin Brockovich worked as a clerk at the firm. Ed Masry drove out to talk with Walker, and eventually brought Brockovich.

Other townspeople later heard about the visiting attorney and called Masry's office. He soon placed an ad in the local newspaper, announcing a "town meeting" to collect clients to mount a lawsuit.

Masry told the residents that he believed that PG&E;'s chromium had poisoned the water, and that this was responsible for their ailments. He offered to represent them in a suit against the giant utility. Throughout 1992, he and Brockovich continued to drum up clients.

. Next page | The arrival of the legal big guns

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