Legal researcher and environmental activist Erin Brockovich became a 20th-century icon when she took on the might of the utilities industry.
Her dogged determination in researching a serious case of water poisoning in a small American town led to a damages payment of $333 million to local residents.
This was the biggest toxic tort injury pay out in history in the United States and made the previously unknown clerk from Lawrence, Kansas, into a household name.
Despite her lack of formal legal training, Brockovich’s exhaustive investigation brought Pacific Gas and Electric to justice, after it was revealed they had been leaking the toxic substance, Chromium 6, into Hinkley’s water since the 1950s.
In 1996, Brockovich joined forces with lawyer Ed Masry, of California legal firm Masry and Vititoe, to successfully spearhead the largest direct action lawsuit of its kind in history.
Following her success, Brockovich’s life changed forever and she is now an environmental activist and consumer advocate. She helps other people who have suffered a loss at the hands of big companies and is also a public speaker at environmental conferences and other events.
How it began
Brockovich was born in June 1960 to industrial engineer Frank and journalist Betty Jo Pattee. After graduating from Wade College in Dallas, with an Associate in Applied Arts Degree, she began training for a managerial role at K-Mart but left after a short time to study electrical engineering.
Her parents had always encouraged her, telling her she could be anything she wanted to be, so on a whim, she entered and won the Miss Pacific Coast beauty pageant. However, she never entered another pageant, after deciding they weren’t for her.
Instead, she settled down in Reno, married and had two children, but following her divorce, she became a secretary at a brokerage firm. Until this point, she was an average divorcee, trying to make a living as a single mum, but a meeting with lawyer Edward L. Masry changed the course of her life.
Brockovich was badly injured in a traffic accident and moved to San Fernando Valley, in California, hiring Masry and Vititoe to represent her in court. She won a small settlement for her injuries, but still needed work, so she became a filing clerk at the offices of Masry and Vititoe.
As one of her tasks, organising the paperwork for a pro bono real estate case led Brockovich to find medical records that eventually exploded into the biggest direct-action lawsuit in American history.
She discovered that the population of Hinkley had been suffering severe health problems, as a result of Pacific Gas and Electric poisoning the water by allowing toxic Chromium 6 to leak into the groundwater.
Her investigations revealed some staggering facts – since 1952, PG&E had dumped approximately 370 million gallons of tainted wastewater into ponds around the town of Hinkley. Chromium 6 is one of the cheapest and most effective corrosion inhibitors. It had been used at PG&E’s compressor station plants in cooling towers along the gas pipelines, but the utility company didn’t tell the local water board about the contamination until 7th December 1987.
The residents of Hinkley had suffered a number of serious health problems, including cancers. In 1993, with Masry’s help, Brockovich began compiling a lawsuit against PG&E.
The legal case was dramatised in the 2000 film, Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the feisty campaigner. The film depicted her final life-changing meeting with the legal team representing PG&E.
Undeterred by the fact she was facing the might of a massive utilities giant, Brockovich refused to bow down or be intimidated, throwing their initial damages offers back in their face and telling them, in no uncertain terms, they had better rethink their offer of compensation to the local residents.
Her refusal to back down, and her evidence compiled from years of painstaking research led to the company agreeing to pay $333 million in damages. Brockovich became a celebrity in her own right – which had never been her intention.
She decided to use her new-found fame to help other people who were facing adversity and she became a consumer champion.
The Hollywood film in 2000 has helped to spread the word of her success to new audiences and has enabled her to carry on with her work as an environmental campaigner.
Today, Brockovich uses her fame to spread positive messages of personal empowerment, encouraging other individuals to make their voice heard. She hosted her own television series, Final Justice with Erin Brockovich, documenting the true stories of everyday women who have triumphed over adversity.
She also hosted ABC’s television special in 2001, Challenge America with Erin Brockovich, when she helped to motivate and organise the refurbishment of a dilapidated park in Manhattan. She also wrote a best-selling book, Take It From Me: Life’s A Struggle, But You Can Win.
Thanks to her fighting spirit, she has become the champion of thousands of ordinary people. She receives many letters and emails every year from people who need help with their own battles – and she answers every single one!
As the president of Brockovich Research and Consulting, she is involved in a multitude of environmental projects across the world and has become one of the most sought-after speakers on the international circuit. She has also been working on complaints of groundwater contamination in states across the US, Australia and other nations.
In a David and Goliath sense, she has become a true American hero, proving that the “little guy” can win, even when facing incredible adversity. By lending her voice to other people who feel they don’t have one, she helps them to fight their own challenges.
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© Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0