It can often feel like the odds are stacked against us. When faced with this kind of situation, many people simply feel like throwing in the towel and giving up on whatever they were trying to accomplish. But some people carry on fighting, even against impossible odds.
Erin Brockovich is the second kind of person. Despite a lack of legal education or training, she worked tirelessly to build a case against a major utility company that had dumped contaminated wastewater into ponds around a small town. This is her incredible story.
Born in Kansas
The world knows the name “Erin Brockovich” so well, but the real star was born Erin Pattee in Lawrence, Kansas. She was part of quite a big family, with two brothers, Frank Jr. and Thomas, and a sister, Jodie.
Erin was born June 22, 1960, to Betty Jo, a journalist, and Frank Pattee, a star college football player who later worked as an industrial engineer.
A Simple Childhood
Erin had a relatively normal and uneventful childhood in Kansas. She attended Lawrence High School, moving on to attend Kansas State University in Manhattan. After that, she moved to Texas to attend Wade College, known at the time as Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising College.
As the youngest of the Brokovich children, Erin looked up to her brothers and sister and tried to follow in their footsteps. But she struggled academically, having been diagnosed as dyslexic at a young age and finding it hard to concentrate in certain classes.
Beating the Odds Early On
Even though she had some troubles at school, Erin was already showing that she was someone who could beat the odds and wouldn’t back down from a challenge. She was determined to get her degree, and that’s exactly what she did.
She studied hard at Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising College and eventually obtained an associate’s degree in applied arts in 1980. After that, it was time for another move, this time to California, where Erin hoped to start work and enjoy a successful life.
Her First Job
Erin made the move to California with one of her friends. She settled in Newport Beach, and it was there that she got her first job. She worked as a management trainee at a local Kmart. However, it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
Erin had always had an interest in the world of fashion and beauty, and she didn’t see her future working in a Kmart. So, not too long after starting the job, she decided to quit and pursue a life in the beauty world instead.
A Beauty Pageant Star
In 1981, shortly after quitting her Kmart job, Erin entered the Miss Pacific Coast beauty pageant. She hoped to do well, but she even exceeded her own expectations, as she was announced as the grand winner of the pageant!
Her naturally beautiful looks and stunning blonde hair helped her claim the No. 1 spot in the contest. It was also around this time that Erin met and fell in love with a man named Shawn Brown, who would soon become her first husband.
Married with Children
Erin married Shaun Brown in April 1982 and decided to leave the world of beauty pageants behind to start a new family life. In the years that followed, she and Shaun moved around to a few places.
They also welcomed the arrival of two children, a son named Matthew and a daughter named Katie. However, even though they had many happy times together, their relationship gradually faded as the years went by, and they eventually got a divorce in 1987.
A Single Mom
Suddenly, in the late 80s, Erin found herself as a single mother, trying to support her children as well as she could. To do this, she decided to get a job at a local brokerage in Reno, Nevada.
It was at this new job that she met the man who would become her second husband: Steve Brockovich. Erin and Steve were married in 1989. However, once again, Erin’s marriage was not destined to go the distance. She and Steve were divorced within less than a year.
Big Events in Erin’s Life
Erin had already experienced quite a lot in her life before she even turned 30. She’d been married twice, divorced twice, given birth to two children, and was also expecting a third child, Elizabeth.
It was around this time that another huge event came along, one which would change the course of Erin’s life forevermore, as well as have huge effects on many other people’s lives in the process. It all began with a terrible car accident that left Erin with a traumatic injury.
A Terrible Accident
Not long after she was divorced from Steve, Erin was involved in an auto accident. Her neck was badly damaged in the accident, and she needed surgery to treat the injury and repair the damage.
She also wanted to seek legal action, as the accident had not been her fault. So, once she had undergone surgery, she moved to the San Fernando Valley, where she had been recommended by a friend to get in touch with a legal office called Masry & Vititoe.
A New Job and a New Start
Erin hired the firm to represent her, hoping for a big settlement that she would be able to use to support her family. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out the way she had hoped, and the settlement she received was a pittance.
However, something else was about to arrive that would make a big difference! Feeling sorry that his client had been given such a poor settlement, attorney Ed Masry decided to offer Erin a job as a legal clerk at his firm.
A Fast Learner
Erin didn’t have any legal experience whatsoever. She hadn’t got any education in the profession and had little understanding of the legal system, but she needed a job to help support her family, so she was happy to take it.
And history had proven Erin to be a fast learner and very adaptable person. She’d moved around to lots of places and had various roles and positions throughout her life, so she was able to adapt to her new job quite quickly and was soon performing her duties to a high standard.
Noticing Something Strange
A big part of Erin’s job as a legal clerk involved sifting through documents and organizing the many reams of paperwork the attorneys needed for their cases. One day, she found herself sorting through some papers regarding a pro bono real estate case involving a utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric (PG & E).
While looking through the papers, Erin noticed something strange. Some of the paperwork was related to blood samples and medical records, which seemed odd for that kind of case. She became curious and asked Masry if she could look into the matter further.
Launching Her Own Investigation
Masry agreed to let Erin take a closer look at the files and find out whatever she could about the case. And from there, Erin started her own investigation, which took her to the small California town of Hinkley.
There, Erin found that a lot of the locals were suffering from various illnesses. Children had nosebleeds, adults had cancer, fibromyalgia, tumors, and more. Something wasn’t right, and Erin was determined to find out what was going on.
Continuing Her Investigation
As Erin learned more about the town, she discovered that Hinkley was the home of one of PG&E’s compressor stations, built back in the 50s. She looked into it, discovering that the station had, for a period of time, made use of a chemical called hexavalent chromium.
Hexavalent chromium was an additive that was poured into the water to help prevent rust from forming in cooling towers. The company then dumped millions of gallons of this tainted wastewater into ponds all around the area surrounding Hinkley, contaminating the local groundwater supply.
A Dramatic Discovery
Erin had to work hard to figure out what was going on, but she eventually made an astonishing discovery. PG&E had been dumping so much water into the area around the town of Hinkley.
This had poisoned the residents over time, leading to high rates of cancer and many other illnesses. And, most worrying of all, it seemed that the company knew exactly what it had done but had tried to cover it up by paying for residents’ healthcare and failing to disclose information about its activities.
A Class-Action Lawsuit
By this point, Erin was fully invested in the case. She’d come to know a lot of the residents of Hinkley. She’d learned all about their stories and the hardships that many of them had suffered, and she wanted to help them however she could.
So, she continued to dig up evidence and then, with the help of Masry & Vititoe, began to put together a class-action lawsuit, with more than 600 of the town’s residents taking part in suing PG&E for polluting their land and poisoning their families.
A Huge Case
The case against PG&E was a big one. It was one of the first times in legal history that such a small town had taken such a big stand against a giant company, and the whole world was watching to find out what would happen.
Luckily, because Erin had done so much work and unearthed so much evidence, the plaintiffs had a very strong case against the company. This meant the case wound up settling in 1996 for a combined total of $333 million, the biggest settlement ever paid out in a direct-action lawsuit in the U.S. at that time.
Making a Real Difference
Without Erin’s efforts, PG&E’s coverup might have succeeded, and nobody would ever have known they’d poisoned that little town and all of its residents for several decades. But, because of Erin, a difference was made.
Of course, money couldn’t undo all of the damage that had been done, and many people’s lives were shortened or damaged because of the chromium in the local water supply. But the money still helped a lot of people enjoy better lives and get the care they needed.
Erin Received a Worthy Reward
Erin also benefited financially from the successful lawsuit, pocketing $2.5 million of the settlement as her fee. This money helped to change her life, allowing her to buy a nice home for herself and her children in the Agoura Hills area of California.
The case also gave Erin an amazing reputation as someone who could do anything she put her mind to. Even without legal experience, she built a case that brought down a huge enterprise and helped an entire town. It was an incredible story, inspiring so many people and catching the attention of some famous faces, too.
Movie Talk Starts to Surface
The case received so much publicity – especially regarding Erin’s hard work and unlikely success – that it eventually caught the attention of a film studio. Danny DeVito’s production company, Jersey Films, decided to buy the rights to the story.
Not long after, work on a movie version of the real-life events started to take place. Experienced screenwriter Susannah Grant, who had worked on the hit TV show “Party of Five”, wrote a screenplay, and Steven Soderbergh was brought on as the film’s director.
Soderbergh Took Influence from a Couple of Classics
In making the film, Soderbergh drew inspiration from two classics of American cinema: “All the President’s Men” and “Rocky”. He said that he wanted to make “Erin Brockovich” entertaining while dealing with serious issues, just like in “All the President’s Men”.
Soderbergh also explained that the film was, in a way, “a Rocky movie”, because it was about an underdog overcoming the odds. Echoes of both of these classic films can be seen and felt while watching the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich”.
There were plenty of interesting behind-the-scenes stories during the production of “Erin Brockovich”. Firstly, Julia Roberts was not the person Erin had in mind to play herself. She originally wanted Goldie Hawn for the role, and her lawyer friend, Masry, even specifically stated that Roberts wouldn’t be a good fit.
The first cut of the film was also very long, at more than 3 hours, and had to be drastically cut for theaters. Not only that, but Universal was worried that Brockovich’s bad language would put off viewers, and Roberts’ then-boyfriend was worried about the way she was dressed and sexualized in the movie, too. Despite these issues, the film was a big hit.
Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich
Even though Brockovich hoped for Hawn, Roberts was picked as the lead for the film. She was one of the biggest stars of the time, and she broke a record during production, becoming the first actress to earn $20 million for one movie.
Roberts’ performance was widely praised, and she won a Best Actress Oscar for the film, along with a Bafta, a Golden Globe, and a range of other awards. She also got to act opposite the real Erin, who played a waitress in one scene.
Albert Finney as Edward L. Masry
English actor Albert Finney was cast in the role of Masry. He was already a big name, having appeared in a range of big movies throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and won many awards during his storied career.
He originally said no, but DeVito was desperate to have Finney in the picture. He spoke with Finney’s girlfriend to get her to convince Finney to accept, and made special schedule adjustments to make filming easier for the actor.
Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen
Marg Helgenberger played the part of Donna Jensen, one of the Hinkley residents who gets Brokovich started on her investigation. The character was a fictional creation for the film, but her story was based on a real Hinkley resident.
Helgenberger had a successful career in the 80s, starring in “Ryan’s Hope”, and enjoyed success in movies like “After Midnight”, “Always”, “Species”, and “Species II” before being cast in “Erin Brockovich”. In more recent years, she’s been seen in TV shows such as “CSI”, “Under the Dome”, and “All Rise”.
Aaron Eckhart as George
Aaron Eckhart played the part of George, Erin’s ponytailed biker boyfriend. It was one of his first big roles on the big screen, and he had barely worked for almost a year before being cast in the movie. Fortunately for him, his performance was well-received and led to many other big roles.
The part of George was based on Erin’s real-life boyfriend, Jorge Halaby. In real life, Halaby tried to extort Erin. He and her first husband, Shawn Brown, tried to weasel more than $300,000 from her by claiming she’d had an affair with Masry. In the end, the lawyer representing Halaby and Brown was disbarred.
A Huge Success
There were a few bumps along the road for the people making “Erin Brockovich”, but the movie was worth the effort and turned out to be a huge success. It was released in theaters on March 17, 2000, and grossed $28 million in its first weekend, later going on to make $257.3 million worldwide.
The movie also received a promising response from critics, with lots of positive reviews and an 85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won one Oscar – a Best Actress nod for Roberts – as well as various other awards.
For Hinkley, the Fight Continues
In the movies, everything usually wraps up with a satisfying ending to the story. But in the real world, there are no endings, and life goes on. Life has been going on for the residents of Hinkley ever since that 1996 settlement Brockovich helped generate.
Sadly, things haven’t gone as well for them as you might have hoped. Even now, decades later, people in Hinkley or those who lived there in the past are still suffering the side effects of their exposure to chromium.
People Are Still Suffering
Brockovich has been back to the town and met with residents who are still suffering. One example is Roberta Walker, who lived in Hinkley from 1976 to 1992. She loved the town, calling it a peaceful and friendly place, and hoped to spend her whole life there.
Things didn’t turn out the way Walker imagined. Her daughters suffered nosebleeds from an early age and later went on to have asthma, hysterectomies, and fibromyalgia. Walker, too, suffers from asthma and has had breast and stomach surgeries, while her husband has had prostate cancer.
The Struggle Goes On
Walker’s story was the inspiration for the character of Donna Jensen in the film, played by Helgenberger. In the movie, Walker is given $5 million of the lawsuit settlement, but in reality, Roberta received far less than that and says the money hasn’t fixed anything.
In 1993, her home was purchased by PG&E and bulldozed, and she and her family relocated. To this day, they’re still feeling the after-effects of everything they endured during their time in Hinkley, and life will never be the same.
Some Residents Still Live There
The population of Hinkley has decreased by about half since the days when Brockovich first visited, but there are still a few hundred people who have decided to stick around, regardless of everything that happened. Penny Harper is one such person.
Harper bought 10 acres in Hinkley in the 70s and has lived there ever since with her rescue dog, Mars. She says that she stays because she loves the views and peace of the place, adding that there are “toxins everywhere”. Her dog has developed a tumor and she believes chromium is to blame.
PG&E Has Been Trying to Clean Up the Town
Ever since the 1996 settlement, PG&E has been trying to clean up the contaminated groundwater in the Hinkley area. One method they’ve been using is to convert the chromium from its current chromium-6 variant into the less dangerous chromium-3 variant.
Independent teams and consultants are involved in this process, with funding from PG&E. The company states that more than 70% of the estimated release of chromium-6 has been removed and it remains “committed to doing what’s right for the Hinkley community.”
Erin Knows the Battle Isn’t Over
When asked how Hinkley is doing these days, Brockovich admits it’s an ongoing fight. She has also said that Hinkley is far from an isolated case, saying that “Hinkleys are happening everywhere, all the time.”
Brockovich even started her own consulting company in 2005 to help other communities facing similar issues stand up for themselves and their health. This is just one of many things she’s been doing since the ’96 settlement. In fact, Brockovich has been very busy in the intervening years.
She Helped with Other Litigation
After the PG&E settlement, Brockovich continued to work with Masry on various anti-pollution lawsuits. One example was a suit in Willits, Calif., against the Whitman Corporation, which had also contaminated water supplies with chromium.
Another settlement occurred in Kings County, Calif., and was connected to the same pipeline as the Hinkley site. That case was eventually settled for $335 million, with more than 1,200 plaintiffs sharing the settlement. Brockovich even organized her own legal case after mold contamination was found in her Agoura Hills home, receiving a settlement of more than $400,000.
Many More Lawsuits
Throughout the 2000s and into the 2010s, Brockovich has participated in many lawsuits and legal cases, primarily focusing on communities and people who have been harmed due to pollution caused by big companies. One case happened in 2003 in Beverly Hills, where school students were endangered after oil wells were opened on campus.
Another case came in 2009, in St. Joseph, Mo. There, waste sludge from leather production had been linked with a high rate of brain tumors in the town of Cameron. Another 2009 case in Midland, Texas, involved significant amounts of chromium found in the water of more than 40 local homes.
An Accomplished Writer
Brockovich has somehow also found time to become a best-selling writer. She wrote the book “Take It From Me. Life’s A Struggle, But You Can Win”, which was listed on the New York Times Business Best Seller list after its publication in 2001. Another book was released in 2020, entitled “Superman’s Not Coming”.
Brockovich has also written various articles. Recently, in 2021, she wrote about hormone-disrupting chemicals, like PFAS, which are believed to harm human fertility rates. So, even now, she continues to educate and raise awareness about pollution and health issues.
Movies and TV
After making a cameo appearance in the 2000 movie focused on her life and the PG&E lawsuit, Brockovich has also appeared in a 2012 documentary entitled “Last Call at the Oasis”. This documentary discussed issues around water pollution, water policy, and water scarcity.
She also hosted a Lifetime show called “Final Justice with Erin Brockovich” that focuses on women who beat the odds in a range of situations, and hosted the TV special, “Challenge America with Erin Brockovich”. Plus, her life served as the loose inspiration for the short-lived ABC legal comedy-drama, “Rebel”.
Where Is Erin Now?
So, what is Brockovich up to these days? As well as being a mother and grandmother, she continues to inspire and amaze people around the world. She’s one of the most-requested speakers on the global lecture circuit and travels far and wide to share her words of wisdom.
She continuously receives letters from people and communities worldwide who deal with pollution and water contamination issues and is still actively involved in various cases. She also has her own consulting firm and works as a consultant for different legal firms, both in the U.S. and overseas.
An Iconic Figure
Brockovich is an embodiment of fighting spirit and determination. She’s someone who never gives in and proves that when people are determined and focused enough, they can accomplish the most extraordinary things. Her life and career are an inspiration to so many, all over the world.
There’s a lot we can learn from her story, and it’s amazing to see how this woman, who came from such simple and humble beginnings, went on to become one of the most iconic, powerful figures of the legal world as we know it, acting as a voice for the voiceless and delivering justice time and time again.