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Ethics Case

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Autor:  anton  04 May 2011
Tags:  Ethics
Words: 1365   |   Pages: 6
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Erin Brockovich-Ellis (born June 22, 1960) is an American legal clerk who, despite the lack of a formal law school education, was instrumental in constructing a case against the $28 billion Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), of California in 1993. Since the release of the movie that shares her story and name, she has hosted Challenge America with Erin Brockovich on ABC and Final Justice on Lifetime. She is the president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, a consulting firm.


Brockovich was born Erin L. E. Pattee in Lawrence, Kansas, and attended Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. She worked as a management trainee for Kmart in 1981 but quit after a few months and entered some potentially lucrative beauty pageants. After winning Miss Pacific Coast in 1981, she soon gave up pageant life because she found it shallow. She has lived in California since 1982.

Pacific Gas litigation

The case alleged contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium (VI), in the southern California town of Hinkley. At the center of the case is a facility called the Hinkley Compressor Station, part of a natural gas pipeline connecting to the San Francisco Bay Area and constructed in 1952. Pacific Gas & Electric was in serious trouble. Four decades after the world's largest utility started dumping 370 million gallons of cancer-causing chemicals into unlined ponds in Hinkley, California, the company's actions had finally been uncovered. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history.

On December 7, 1987 officials from the company advised the State of California they had detected levels of hexavalent chromium (chrome 6) in a groundwater monitoring well north of the compressor station's waste water ponds. The levels were ten times greater than the maximum amount allowed by law.

Known as a cancer-causing chemical since the 1920s, chrome 6 is especially dangerous to lungs. Since many of the Hinkley residents were reporting respiratory problems, a link to chrome 6 contaminations seemed possible.

PG&E distributed flyers discussing the company's use of "chromium" to local residents. Nowhere in the flyer was there any mention of the type of chromium PG&E had used. In fact, one could make a strong case that carefully selected words were deliberately misleading:"Chromium occurs in two forms…. In fact, chromium in this form is a naturally occurring metal that is an essential ingredient in the human diet, one that is often included in multiple vitamin/mineral supplements”. Reading these words, one could reasonably think PG&E's hexavalent chromium was almost beneficial. As the plaintiffs' trial brief wryly commented, the flyer might have invited a person to "sprinkle some on your morning cereal."

ВЁFailure to properly identify the dangerous type of "chromium" it had dumped into the environment wasn't PG&E's only omission. The flyer made it sound like detection of contamination at the compressor station was a new development. It wasn't. PG&E first knew about plant contamination by at least 1965.

ВЁPG&E records revealed people at the company were concerned about chrome 6 contamination of Hinkley's groundwater "by at least the summer of 1965." (Plaintiffs' Trial Brief). ВЁInvestigating what PG&E officials knew about the contamination - and when they knew it - Fox TV (local channel 11) ran a series on May 23, 24 and 26, 1994.

The Station compresses one third of the natural gas required by PG&E's customers in northern and central California. The purpose of the Compressor is to boost pressure and to send the natural gas northward. As part of the plant's operation, heat is generated during the gas compression process, and the heat is removed with cooling water. The water, in turn, is cooled by the passage through cooling towers."

ВЁIn the flyer PG&E distributed to neighbors of the compressor station, the company talks about adding chromium to the cooling process: ВЁSmall amounts of chromium were commonly added by industries to cooling towers to prevent corrosion and scaling. "Small amounts" wouldn't cause neighbors who owned ranches and dairy farms to worry much. Chromium (VI) is known to be toxic and carcinogenic, and the 0.58 ppm in the groundwater in Hinkley exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level of 0.10 ppm currently set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency By 1966 an estimated 65 tons of chromate-based corrosion inhibitors were discharged into the unlined ponds

Once the toxic material was in the unlined ponds, there was nothing to stop it from migrating to the wells that supplied nearby homes, farms and ranches. Once it was in the aquifer that supplied Hinkley residents with all their water, nothing stopped the toxic material from getting into the peoples' wells. Wherever the plume traveled, the corresponding wells in its path were contaminated.

Knowing full well how much chrome 6 the company had used for so many decades, PG&E told neighbors of the plant to ВЁ...avoid drinking your well water, but it is safe to use for all other domestic purposes such as bathing and watering animals and plants. It is difficult to comprehend how anyone could have made such a statement in light of the facts.

Before it issued the flyer, PG&E met with the people of Hinkley on April 25, 1988.During the meeting, defendant [PG&E] told citizens that there was "No risk at current levels" and "Generally, site groundwater is good and suitable for drinking and agriculture." (Plaintiffs' Trial Brief) Company officials made notes of the April meeting.

ВЁIt isn't easy to uncover the truth about contaminated groundwater. No one from the polluting company is going to hand over documents containing proof of what happened. In a busy law firm, people are managing day-to-day issues on pending cases. The thought of starting a massive contamination case can be a daunting prospect.

Law firms taking on such claims have to be dedicated and willing to front enormous amounts of money to uncover the smoking guns. Erin Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry, rose to the occasion. (Follow these links to see the real people, not the actors.) When 77 initial plaintiffs filed their lawsuit against PG&E in 1993, it was the direct result of a monstrous effort by this dedicated legal team. People who drank polluted water, and breathed contaminated air, wanted answers. As Walter Lack, whose firm took over lead responsibilities for the litigation, told the trial judge on January 4, 1994:

They want to know the truth. That's really what they want in this lawsuit because they are dying, some of them. They want to know what was done to them as they grew up and raised their families." ¨Plaintiffs’ settlement demand was hard for PG&E to comprehend: $250 million. Even the trial judge called it ...a rather shocking sort of an offer. Turns out, PG&E would have saved a huge amount of money on settlement and defense costs had they accepted the plaintiffs' demand early in the case.

ВЁBy July and August of 1994, with the preconception win in their pockets, plaintiffs literally bombarded PG&E with six inches of motions to compel production of documents and more detailed answers to interrogatories. What they needed from PG&E were the details: The facts and figures of how much chrome 6 was used; how and when it was discharged; when the wells were first tested; how much concealment from the citizens of Hinkley was really going on.

By September 19, 1994 the parties reached an agreement to arbitrate/mediate. The agreement pulled the case out of the trial court - where a jury would have decided it - and placed it into the hands of Justice John K. Trotter and Judge Daniel H. Weinstein, two outstanding retired jurists.

The case still had a long life ahead of it, but at least the parties had formulated a reasonable way to work through the claims of more than 600 people.

¨The arbitration trial took nearly two years. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had to:

-Prove medical causation

-Deal with missing evidence that had been lost or destroyed

-Reconstruct a complex hydro-geological water system

-Prove the extent of PG&E inappropriate conduct

ВЁAt the end of the arbitration trial, the plaintiffs reached a global settlement with PG&E which:

-Compensated all the named plaintiffs in the amount of $333 million

-Required PG&E to clean up the environment

-Required PG&E to stop using chromium 6

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