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Legal Watch: Erin Brokovich

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Posted on June 16, 2023

The 2000 film “Erin Brokovich” is a biographical legal drama based on the true story of a woman who becomes an unlikely hero in the fight against corporate greed and corruption. The movie follows Erin, a single mother of three, who, after a car accident, lands a job as a legal assistant in a small law firm. She stumbles upon a case involving Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a corporation that contaminated the drinking water of a small town with the dangerous chemical, chromium 6. The chemical was used in the company’s cooling towers and failed to properly dispose of it. Erin becomes obsessed with the case and spends countless hours investigating, gathering evidence, and convincing the victims to join a class-action lawsuit against PG&E. Let’s examine some relevant key themes presented in the film from a South Jersey personal injury lawyer perspective.

Environmental Pollution

The film’s primary theme is the impact on health caused by environmental pollution. In Hinkley, California, residents had been suffering from a variety of health problems, including cancer, due to the presence of toxic chemicals in the groundwater. Pacific Gas and Electric had knowingly dumped millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the groundwater, contaminating the drinking water supply of the town. The sink water was flammable, farm animals were dropping dead, and an uptick in cancer cases raised red flags. This film demonstrates how companies can cause irreparable harm to individuals and communities, especially if they are not held responsible for their actions.

Corporate Responsibility

Corporate responsibility refers to the ethical and legal obligations that corporations have to their stakeholders, including their employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. PG&E’s actions are an example of corporate negligence, a failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm to others. The corporation knew the dangers of chromium 6 and the risks it posed to the health of Hinkley but failed to take action to protect them. Instead, they engaged in a cover-up, destroying documents and lying to the public about the contamination.

Corporate Accountability

One of the central themes in “Erin Brokovich” is corporate accountability, as the film portrays the real-life case of PG&E, who was accused of polluting the groundwater in Hinkley, California. The company initially denied any wrongdoing, and the community was left to suffer the devastating health consequences. However, Erin, with no formal legal training, forces the corporation to accept responsibility for their actions. She fought the corporate giant to ensure that the residents were compensated for their suffering and the contamination was cleaned up. Her efforts pay off when the case is settled for $333 million, the largest settlement in US history (in 1996) for a direct-action lawsuit.

This theme is particularly relevant for personal injury firms because we specialize in representing individuals who have suffered harm due to the actions of corporations or other negligent parties. This film is a testament that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it Is possible to achieve justice.

Community Activism

The residents of Hinkley initially struggled to gain attention for their concerns about the contaminated water supply. However, with the help of Erin Brokovich and other activists, they organize and demand action from authorities. They hold public meetings, collect evidence, and bring their case to the attention of the media. Their efforts eventually led to a significant settlement from PG&E and the installation of a new water treatment system for the town.

Community activism can be a powerful tool for raising awareness of the harm caused by corporations. Law firms can, and sometimes do, work with community groups to help them organize and advocate for their rights.

Corporate Greed

Another key theme of this film is corporate greed and the lengths to which corporations will go to protect their profits. The film shows how PG&E was willing to cover up evidence of its contamination to avoid legal liability and protect its bottom line. This is demonstrated when their lawyers offered to settle the case with a meager sum of money to avoid going to trial, despite knowing the gravity of the harm caused by their actions.

Erin’s investigation also reveals how PG&E’s greed extended beyond the contamination case. The company had been systematically cheating its customers by overcharging them for energy usage. This discovery led to a separate legal battle that Erin helped to win, resulting in PG&E having to pay over $330 million in restitution to its customers.

Greed highlights the need for regulations and legal protections to prevent corporations from putting profits ahead of public interest.

Personal Resilience as a Legal Professional

An effective way to tackle corporate greed is by embodying resilience. Erin is portrayed as a determined and tenacious individual who refuses to be defeated by the countless obstacles she faces. Despite her lack of formal training, she fights for justice on behalf of the residents of Hinkley. She overcomes personal setbacks and professional challenges to achieve a successful outcome for her clients.

Lawyers must have a strong sense of resilience and determination, as they often face significant opposition from corporations, insurance companies, and other parties who are eager to avoid liability. By persevering and maintaining a strong sense of purpose, lawyers can achieve positive outcomes for their clients.

Empowerment of Women

Erin emphasizes the empowerment of women, especially in the face of adversity. Her character is inspiring because she was a single mother to make ends meet. Her unwillingness to quit landed her a job in a very unfamiliar and new setting. She worked tirelessly on the PG&E case, even after being discouraged and underpaid. She faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace due to her gender. Despite all her challenges, she never gives up and becomes the hero for the town, her children, and herself. She was able to prove to herself that hard work pays off eventually.

This film is a powerful examination of the human cost of corporate greed and environmental pollution. It highlights the importance of legal advocacy, personal resilience, and community activism in the fight for justice.