TCS Daily


Erin Brockovich: The Real-Life Sequel

By James K. Glassman - November 28, 2001 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the Wall Street Journal.

Unlike Emma Bovary and Scarlett O`Hara, Erin Brockovich is a real, live person. She`s a 41-year-old mother of three with a gift for publicity. Julia Roberts won an Oscar playing her in the eponymous movie about a legal assistant who got 650 prospective plaintiffs together in 1993 in the desert town of Hinkley, Calif., to sue Pacific Gas & Electric for making them sick. Three years later, PG&E settled for $333 million.

Now she`s into line extension. "She has become an Oprah-style self-help guru, touring the United States with husband number three, Eric, offering words of inspiration to crowds in exchange for upwards of $15,000," reported the Times of London a week ago[ED: NOV. 18]. She`s just come out with a book, and NBC is closing a deal with her for a TV talk show.

Moreover, she has found an even bigger target for a lawsuit: ExxonMobil, the energy giant, with $149 billion in assets. Ms. Brockovich and her sidekick, lawyer Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney in the movie), are contacting workers who helped clean up the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to find out whether they became ill.

The plot sounds suspiciously similar. In the 1993 case, Ms. Brockovich blamed PG&E for allowing chromium 6, a rust inhibitor, to get into Hinkley`s water supply, allegedly causing all sorts of symptoms -- from Hodgkin`s disease and miscarriages to spinal deterioration and nosebleeds. In the suit that she and Mr. Masry say they are preparing to file against ExxonMobil, they`ll blame the company for exposing cleanup crews to crude oil and chemicals, allegedly causing headaches, nausea, rashes, chemical burns, breathing problems and just about anything else you can find in the Merck Manual.

Ms. Brockovich herself is not an attorney, but she acts like a member of the new breed of celebrity trial lawyers. Among them: Peter G. Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who has specialized in asbestos and tobacco; Richard Scruggs, brother-in-law of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, and also a tobacco profiteer; John Edwards, Democratic senator from North Carolina, who made millions off personal-injury cases; and John Coale, the Washington attorney married to CNN`s Greta Van Susteren, and a big tobacco winner too.

The idea of celebrity lawyers is nothing new, but this breed is different. Often working with state attorneys general, they are winning billions from sympathetic juries and then recycling the money back into politics to get more favorable laws, judges and prosecutors. Altogether, according to triallawyermoney.org, more than $14 billion has been awarded in legal fees in tobacco cases alone, and a significant chunk of that has flowed into the coffers of Democrats.

If Ms. Brockovich`s firm wins its case against ExxonMobil, it`ll also have a lot of dough to spread around. In a letter trying to rustle up plaintiffs, Ms. Brockovich wrote to Alaska public interest groups, "Chemical poisoning can cause ... health problems that manifest as many different symptoms." The problem is that if you take a sample of 15,000 people and follow them for 12 years, the law of averages indicates you`ll find a lot of illness. For example, the American Cancer Society reports that in the late 1990s, the cancer mortality rate for Alaskans was 174 deaths per 100,000 population per year. At that rate, out of 15,000 people, 343 will die from cancer alone. Correlation does not equal causation, and people get sick from all sorts of things other than chromium 6 and oil residue; sometimes it`s just in their genes.

In fact, the assertion that widely varied ailments proceed from a single cause is suspicious itself. One Valdez cleanup worker said that she started out with a runny nose and cough, then was diagnosed with emphysema, asthma, diabetes, an enlarged liver, and a bacterial growth in her lower intestine. Another, Randy Lowe, who said Exxon paid him $600 a day for the use of his boat for the cleanup, told a reporter that between 1990-97 he was in the hospital 58 times for "pancreatic, liver problems, spleen problems" and "septic shock." His medical bills, which he calculates at $1.5 million, were paid largely by Medicaid.

The Valdez spill occurred just as the first President Bush was taking office, and workers with health complaints have had plenty of time to file suits. Only 25 have done so. In a statement released Nov. 5, ExxonMobil said that the complaints were "highly individualized. Exposure has been claimed to different substances, by different means, at different times, which allegedly caused different symptoms and conditions in the plaintiffs." The company also says it has had long experience with petroleum: "Years of study of refinery workers and others in the oil industry have demonstrated that crude oil can be worked with safely." As Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Most health officials remain unconvinced that the cleanup left anyone sick."

But with a legal celebrity on the job, how much do the facts matter? Most companies, worried by the thought of runaway juries, decide to settle -- whether they`ve done anything wrong or not. Exxon itself was hit with a $5 billion judgment in punitive damages by a jury in the Valdez case. (That was on top of the actual costs of the spill; on its own, Exxon was handing out checks to local residents who became known as "spillionaires" -- a total of $300 million to 11,000 Alaskans.) The award was rejected and sent back to the lower court earlier this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but the threat remains. And, of course, such payoffs don`t go merely to plaintiffs. In the PG&E case, the lawyers collected $133.6 million in fees, including a $2 million bonus for Ms. Brockovich.

But in an ironic twist, Mr. Brockovich`s success brought her something else: lawsuits. Her first husband, Shawn Brown, sued her for "the emotional distress he claimed her fame caused him," according to the Times of London. And second husband Steve Brockovich "claims his stockbroking firm suffered as a result of his link to her." Correlation doesn`t equal causation, but what the hell. ...
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