The incredible story of Erin Brockovich

“Erin Brockovich.’’ That name rings a bell. It is associated with Julia Roberts, who owns a best actress Oscar for playing her. But when the movie was released in 2000, nobody knew who she was. LILA Gazette refreshes your memory.

By Ella Erez – 8th grade

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Californian single mother, with one baby, one toddler, and a 10-year-old, divorced twice, Erin was barely getting by, constantly applying for jobs to support her family. But that all changed when she was given a job by a law firm who didn’t want to hire her at first. At age 33, she finally feels settled in life. That was only the beginning of an event that would forever change her life. 

In 1993, Erin began working on a real estate case, in which a company called PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electricity) was offering to buy the home of a woman named Donna Jensen in a small town called Hinkley, California. As Erin looked through the files, she noticed medical records in it, which surprised her. This was the start of a shocking case that made her who she is now.

After sifting more through the medical records, she paid Donna a visit in Hinkley. Donna said that she appreciated PG&E’s help, since she had several tumors and her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, and PG&E provided them with a doctor. After curiously questioning why they would do this, Donna said it was because of the chromium. Hexavalent chromium is a chemical that some water companies use to clean the water, but are only allowed to use a certain amount, because too much can be poisonous. It can cause all kinds of cancer, ulcers, asthma, liver damage, and much more. 

Gaining the trust

As Erin digs deeper into the case, she finds evidence that PG&E has been using highly contaminated chromium water, while telling the residents that the water is only handled with a safe type of chromium. After getting fired for missing a week of work at the law firm because of her curiosity in the Hinkley case, she nevertheless keeps digging. She visits more and more Hinkley residents, gaining their trust, and finds that every resident or a member in their family has had some sort of disease, tumor, or illness, and that all of their doctors have been saying that it is unrelated to the chromium in PG&E’s water. PG&E had hired the doctors to tell residents this, leading them to believe the water is safe.

When her boss reaches out to her because he is in need of the documents she found while investigating, she takes the chance to ask for her job back in return. He gives it to her, and they continue their investigation. Over time, Erin and her boss, Ed, gain the trust of Hinkley’s population. They host a barbecue and invite all Hinkley residents to explain to them what is happening with their water and how PG&E had been lying to them. They began asking more of the residents about the diseases in their family.

An elementary school girl had a rare form of cancer due to the chromium, and was unable to go to school because of it. Instead she had to stay at home and undergo treatment. A 63-year-old woman had had 7 strokes, and her 41-year-old daughter had had five miscarriages before giving birth to a son with severe cognitive problems. Pinky, an 8 year old boxer, had thousands of tumors all over his body in his mouth, head, back, legs and paws. 

“Destroy documents”

The Jensens, Donna’s family, wanted compensation for their family’s illnesses and sued PG&E. Unfortunately, all the evidence that Ed and Erin had gathered was linked only to PG&E Hinkley, rather than PG&E Corporate, so until they could reach PG&E headquarters, then they could deny what was happening in Hinkley.

Ed and Erin realize that if they sued PG&E Corporate, the lawsuit could take years, most likely 10 to 15. Ed decides they should bind arbitration (a case overseen by a neutral party, who then makes a decision. This takes the place of a jury trial, saving money and time) rather than do a jury trial, if they get all 634 plaintiffs (somebody to brings a case against another in court) to agree. Ed and Erin hold a Hinkley town meeting, in which they hope to convince the residents that a binding arbitration would save them money and time. Eventually everyone agrees, including the plaintiffs. 

One night, Erin stops in a bar and begins a conversation with a man she saw at former Hinkley town meetings. He reveals himself as Charles Embry, a former PG&E employee. He tells Erin he and his cousin were both employees at PG&E, and that his cousin has just died on account of the poison he handled at PG&E. 

He explains that PG&E asked him to ‘’destroy documents,’’ which he did not do, and later on shows them to Erin. These documents included a memo from 1966 stating that PG&E Corporate was aware of PG&E Hinkley’s contaminated water, but asked them to keep it a secret. In the end, the judge orders PG&E to pay $333 million to be distributed among the plaintiffs, 5 million of which went to the Jensens, and 2 million of which went to Erin. 

That was only the debut of Erin Brockovich’s career. After the PG&E case, she went on to participate in other anti-pollution cases, one of which was a lawsuit against the Whitman Corporation for chromium poisoning in Willits, California. She has since participated in many more cases and is president of Brockovich Research & Consulting. 

But what Erin is publicly known for is the movie Erin Brockovich that came out in 2000, starring Julia Roberts. Roberts went on to win best actress at the Oscars, and the movie won best picture, best director, best supporting actor and best original screenplay.

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