Almost a decade after Hollywood celebrated her landmark victory , the environmental campaigner is still fighting. Lauren MacGillivray finds her prepared to deliver a tough message on asbestos to insurers at the Biba conference
ERIN?BROCKOVICH knows what you’re probably thinking – that she’s no more than an attractive woman who lucked out with a Hollywood movie named after her, starring Julia Roberts.
But if you’re expecting a shallow fame-seeker who clings to her red carpet experience from almost a decade ago, then don’t: she’s still fighting, and, at this week’s Biba conference, she will be delivering a tough message to the UK insurance market. Brockovich believes insurers are not doing enough to compensate victims of asbestos, and she is hoping her presence at the conference will help spur them into action.
In an exclusive interview with Insurance Times, Brockovich chats from Southern California. She has already prepared her uncompromising approach for the insurance industry: “There are flaws in the system all the way down the line, starting with politics, legislation, insurers, defence and even claimant attorneys. What bothers me is we are dealing with human beings who work to better their lives and their families. They’ve helped companies provide coal and things for their countries and then they get poisoned and get a death sentence of mesothelioma. Then we argue over compensation for them.”
Considering her stance on asbestos, it’s no surprise Brockovich supports the Scottish bill on pleural plaques – symptomless growths on the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos – which makes plaques compensable. The bill has caused outrage among insurers, with a group led by the ABI preparing to take the Scottish Parliament to court. There are fears that the UK government could be set to follow its example, at a potential cost of billions of pounds to the industry.
But Brockovich is firmly on the side of the Scottish Parliament. She says that while pleural plaques have not been found to lead to mesothelioma (cancer in the cells covering the internal organs), medical opinion could change. “Who knows? This might be a silent but deadly pre-condition to mesothelioma, and they might be able to find a way to cure or slow the process.”
She adds that in the now famous Pacific Gas and Electric case, the people probably wouldn’t have sued if PG&E had told them what was happening and given them alternative housing. But because of the cover-up, the company was forced to pay out $333m in the first lawsuit, and probably another $150m for defence costs, experts and clean-up costs.
“Insurance companies have the same issue,” she says. “They [often] know the problem and they go to these painstaking measures. I don’t know where you’re coming out ahead. It’s obvious to me by looking at the economy that it’s a grave mistake; you’re paying out a lot of money because you’re getting caught for lying.”
Brockovich offers mainly a US perspective, and the US has a worse track record than the UK when it comes to health scandals. But she says Britons would be surprised if they knew how many American companies with UK offices were causing pollution here. She consults with an American law firm which has barristers in the UK, and says UK communities have been approaching her.
One of her latest campaigns involves the very issue of asbestos poisoning. She recently gave a speech at an asbestos conference held by the New York lawyers, Weitz & Luxemburg, for whom she is a consultant.
“It was mostly insurers and defence attorneys and I got a little hesitant to say what I needed to say,” she admits. “But then I thought, ‘What the hell, they really need to hear it’.”
Brockovich has come a long way since her first fight, immortalised in the film. But this has left her fighting against some negative perceptions.
“I’m not stupid, I hear people’s comments – ‘Oh, what does she know? Here she comes with her blond hair and her big tits, and she had a movie made about her.’ You know what? I have a lot to offer. I’ve spent 18 years down on the ground in the trenches with these cases.”
This is not just American bravado, and some of the scenarios she deals with are as sinister as anything Hollywood could invent. Her latest battle is helping farmers in a case against Prime Tanning Corp, which is accused of dumping toxic fertiliser containing hexavalent chromium (chromium 6) on farms in north-west Missouri. The case has been widely reported in the US media. Critics say the fertiliser has caused several people to develop brain tumours, but Prime Tanning Corp has disputed the claims and defended its environmental record.
Brockovich grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, the youngest child of an industrial engineer and a journalist. In 1981, at the age of 28, she won the Miss Pacific Coast title, but gave up beauty pageants because she found that world shallow.
In 1991, after being seriously injured in a traffic accident, she and her children moved to Southern California where she hired Masry & Vititoe to handle her accident case. She made a strong impression; soon after her case was resolved [out of court for $50,000] she was hired to work at the law firm as a filing clerk.
While organising papers in a real estate case, she came across medical reports that caught her eye. She discovered that hundreds of people who lived in or near Hinkley, California between the 1960s and the 80s had been exposed to chromium 6. The toxin had leaked into the groundwater from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s compressor station. Working with colleague Ed Masry, she forced the giant utility company to pay $333m (£220m) in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents – the biggest toxic tort injury settlement in US history.
And today, she’s still keeping busy. As president of the consulting firm Brockovich Research & Consulting, she’s involved in numerous major environmental cases. She also works as a consultant with law firms, and gives motivational speeches around the world.
But she makes sure to spend time with her husband Eric Ellis and her three children.
Erin Brockovich is not your average speaker at an insurance conference. But Biba is not afraid to take a risk – last year saw Bob Geldof take the stage. She insists that she has no personal vendetta against insurers or corporations – she merely wants to ensure justice.
“I don’t think anything bad of [insurers]; they’re the ones who have to live with themselves at the end of the day. But if I can get there with them, so that when they’ve got that next claim in front of them they’ll think and act differently, then that can help set the wheels in motion.”
When her movie first came out in 2000, Brockovich was asked on the red carpet how it felt to have her name up in lights. At the time, she said it was a lot to take in, and to ask her again in 10 years. Now that she’s almost reached that point, she considers the experience a “double-edged sword” but a good thing for the most part. As much as she wants to be seen as more than a pretty face, she remains grateful for the movie and the platform it’s given her to do her work.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. I thought this would come and go in a year or two and it continues on. If I take a really long, hard look at what the movie meant, 10 years later the momentum’s not only still there but getting stronger. That’s because the message is so true to life as we see the ultimate fallout today from lack of oversight . . .
“My name gets dragged through the mud a lot but I can withstand that because it’s for a better cause. I believe awareness is key and if I can make companies more aware, it’s worth it. I’m not afraid.”