Ten years ago this month, Erin Brockovich, a hitherto unknown legal assistant, was rocketed to fame when a certain movie premiered.
Over the following five years, she gave motivational speeches to universities, women’s organizations and the like about her experiences investigating contaminated drinking water in the Mojave Desert community of Hinkley. She wrote a book and did some television work, but then slowed down.
More recently, however, Brockovich has picked up the pace again. “I see myself becoming an enterprise,” Brockovich said.
She’s president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, a company she runs with a couple of assistants out of her Agoura Hills home. She advises people who believe they’ve been hurt by contamination by getting them connected with public agencies and lawyers, who pay her.
She also has popped up on TV commercials lately. That’s because she works as a consultant for New York personal injury and mass tort firm Weitz & Luxenberg, partly as a spokeswoman. She has a similar role with an Australian personal injury firm named Shine Lawyers. She also works with, but has not worked as a spokeswoman for, downtown L.A. plaintiffs’ firm Girardi & Keese.
“I’ve become this business information hub,” Brockovich, 49, said during a recent interview at her 5,000-square-foot house that she’s done up in a Tuscan motif, where she lives with her husband of 11 years, Eric Ellis; her youngest daughter; and four Pomeranians, a papillon and yellow Labrador. “All this stuff is coming in and I’ve gotten busier. I’m almost like an air traffic controller, trying to find homes and places for people or information so we can generate some solutions.”
Thanks to the movie “Erin Brockovich,” her name will always be associated with contaminated water in general, and in particular chromium 6 or hexavalent chromium, the chemical that led to the lawsuit and a $333 million settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. made famous by the film.
As a result of her fame, she gets constant screenloads of e-mails from people across the United States and the world.
“It’s almost a daunting, frightening task if you ask me because it goes way beyond the United States,” Brockovich said. “I have people with hexavalent chromium problems who have e-mailed me. It’s a problem. It’s not sensationalism, it’s not a joke, it’s not hype, and it’s a legitimate concern that’s got to be addressed.”
“Her influence is still phenomenally high,” said Simon Morrison, a partner at Shine Lawyers in Australia. “She is looked upon as almost an iconic figure.”
He has been working with Brockovich on a case against Alcoa Inc. Residents of a Western Australian township claim their health problems have been caused by the Pittsburgh company’s aluminum refinery there. Alcoa has denied any wrongdoing, saying that its refinery hasn’t created any environmental hazards.
Morrison said the Australian people are inspired by Brockovich’s story, giving clout to the cases with her name attached.
“She has a lot of influence with politicians and judges in the country,” he said.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. Some say she promotes junk science and scares people unnecessarily in promoting contamination cases.
“She is famous, and she was given a flattering depiction by Hollywood,” said Walter Olson, editor of Overlawyered.com. “People want to come and hear what she has to stay because she is who she is. And from the standpoint of lawyers trying to turn a general community controversy into a lawsuit, she has a great value to add.
“The problem is that scaring people out of their wits when their living environment turns out, in retrospect, to not be toxic does them a disservice.”
Brockovich has used her name to bring awareness to other environmental problems, including the alleged contamination of water in the town of Midland, Texas. Brockovich appeared on CBS’ “Early Show” last summer to discuss the alleged chromium 6 contamination, which an environmental investigator said has been caused by Houston-based multinational oilfield services company Schlumberger Ltd. The company has denied any wrongdoing and said chromium 6 wasn’t used at Midland.
Locally, Brockovich was involved in a lawsuit alleging that an oil rig next to Beverly Hills High School was emitting carcinogenic fumes. Brockovich helped bring more than 200 personal injury claims against the Beverly Hills Unified School District and the city of Beverly Hills alleging that vapors from the site were causing cancer.
But experts disputed the cancer claims, and state regulators said testing revealed nothing abnormal. Lawsuits against the city, the school district and Sempra Energy were dismissed pending appeal. Frontier Oil settled for $6.2 million in 2007.
But the cases keep coming. For example, the Walt Disney Co. has been under attack in a half-dozen lawsuits claiming its toxins have seeped into a neighborhood park. The suits, including the most recent one filed Jan. 8, allege that air-conditioning water contaminated with chromium 6 is seeping into a Burbank neighborhood next to Disney’s sprawling studio site. Disney has denied any wrongdoing, and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control said chemical levels at the site aren’t above state or federal safety thresholds.
Brockovich isn’t involved in the litigation against Disney, although the local law firms she works with, Girardi & Keese, is handling some of the litigation.
“I’m well aware of that situation. There is more chromium 6 contamination than people realize,” Brockovich said. “The movie and original lawsuit really opened Pandora’s box.”
However, Brockovich said she isn’t against big business, and acknowledges that every lawsuit doesn’t end like the movie – with the company making a hefty payout.
Her father was a mechanical engineer who worked at Kansas refineries and brought her up with a conservative outlook.
“I was taught from a Republican, industry-oriented father that the greatest gifts you have are your health; your family; and good, clean water,” she said. “My work in Hinkley wasn’t driven by anti-industry (beliefs). My work was driven by the fact that deception was becoming a problem.”
Brockovich was born and raised in Lawrence in eastern Kansas. Her father now resides in an assisted-living facility near her Agoura Hills home. Her mother, who died in 2008, was a journalist.
Brockovich moved to Newport Beach in the 1980s to work for Kmart as a management trainee. Then she got married to her first husband and moved back to Kansas. She had two kids, moved to Reno, Nev., and got divorced in 1987. Her second marriage lasted from 1989 to 1990 and produced one child. She divorced and returned to Southern California. That’s when she got a job with personal injury law firm Masry & Vititoe, which was then in Northridge and is now in Westlake Village.
At Masry, she began investigating the contamination at Hinkley. At the time, she told her chiropractor about her work and her romance with a motorcycle rider.
“I would share stories with her about the biker dude, some issue with the kids, being out in Hinkley and collecting dead frogs,” Brockovich said. “And she would laugh her ass off. I ran around in little cut-off shorts and short skirts and heels, and I had the baby, so the whole thing for her was funny and she would share it with her friends.”
One of those friends was actor Danny DeVito’s producing partner. One thing led to another, and the result was the film “Erin Brockovich.”
The film chronicles Brockovich’s work in Hinkley, and portrayed her pretty much as she was – a sexy, down-on-her-luck single mother of three who worked as a legal assistant.
The film became a commercial and critical success, grossing more than $250 million worldwide.
Brockovich wasn’t quite prepared for the celebrity status that was thrust upon her.
“It was scary,” she said. “I don’t think I saw this coming and someone might say that’s really naïve. My father, he made it very clear to me when the movie came out, he said ‘Be careful here, Erin. You are going to get shot into some kind of fame and be prepared for someone to come and try and knock you off.’”
She made $70,000 for her rights to the movie itself, but she’s made far more from speaking engagements and her book, published by McGraw-Hill Cos. She also hosted some TV shows after the movie’s release – a 2001 ABC special called “Challenge America With Erin Brockovich” as well as a series called “Final Justice With Erin Brockovich” that ran on Lifetime for three seasons.
While she busied herself in the years after the movie, family problems crept in. Her daughter Elizabeth started using drugs at age 12. Over the years that Brockovich was on her speaking tour, Elizabeth became an addict, abusing marijuana, LSD and heroin. Brockovich eventually had to send her to Malibu drug treatment facility Visions.
“I wanted to believe that there was no problem,” Brockovich said. “And by my giving her money or cars, I was enabling and contributing to the problem. So, I learned that I was an enabler and I had to stop that, and that was hard for me because I like to think I’m this cool, collected, in-control person.”
Brockovich slowed the pace of her speaking tours after the ex-boyfriend who was depicted in the film as George the biker died in 2005. Ed Masry, the lawyer she worked closely with on the now-famous case, died a few months later. Brockovich’s mother died in February 2008.
With three major figures in her life gone and with her daughter’s issues, she took time to reassess her goals.
She’s ramped up her activities more recently, but this time she’s more focused and, she believes, more sophisticated and business like.
“I’m getting the opportunity to take a look at all sides,” she said, “and I’m trying to make a difference across the board for us as consumers today and for the future our children.
“And I can analyze things much more. Not everything is emotional.”