U.S. News

06.12.13

The Messy Truth About Erin Brockovich

The iconic litigator, glorified by Julia Roberts in a 2000 movie, was arrested for drunkenly handling a boat this weekend. Eliza Shapiro on the unglamorous trouble behind the famous name.

The last time most of us heard about legal crusader Erin Brockovich, she was being glamorously portrayed by Julia Roberts in an Academy Award–winning film.

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Erin Brockovich, following her arrest, 2013. (HOPD)

Thirteen years later, she’s a household name again—for drunkenly driving a boat around a Nevada lake, an act that earned her a DUI citation and a very unflattering mug shot. Brockovich was booked at the Clark County Detention Center and released after posting $1,000 bond.

“At no time was the boat away from the dock and there was no public safety risk,” Brockovich wrote in a public apology released on Sunday. “That being said, I take drunk driving very seriously, this was clearly a big mistake. I know better and I am very sorry.”

Not a good look for a woman whose reputation is built on moral rectitude. But even before the boating incident, Brockovich’s post-Brockovich life hasn’t been without controversy. In the years since the 2000 movie was released, much of her litigation—including the landmark class-action suit that inspired the film, have been the subject of intense scrutiny.

Video screenshot

Forget the real Erin Brockovich. Watch these classic lines from the Julia Roberts movie imitation.

As moviegoers know, before Brockovich was an inebriated sailor, she was a twice-divorced mother of three who led a 1993 lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric for contaminating drinking water in the town of Hinkley, California. Brockovich and her firm alleged that residents of Hinkley were suffering higher rates of cancer due to pollutants used to fight corrosion in a natural gas pipeline built by PG&E. At $333 million, the 1996 settlement won by Brockovich and her team was the largest sum ever awarded in a U.S. class-action lawsuit.

Brockovich, who famously had no prior legal training, earned a $2 million bonus for the case and parlayed the victory into a lucrative career.

She’s got a flashy website promoting her nearly two decades as a consumer advocate, with information on everything from defective hip-implant manufacturers to Accutane’s side effects. She’s been celebrated in the PBS documentary series Makers and made The New York Times business bestseller list with her 2001 autobiography, Take It From Me: Life’s a Struggle But You Can Win.

But questions about the Hinkley case continue to dog her.

Rates of cancer in the California town are not currently and have never actually been higher than other remote desert communities, John Morgan, a professor at Loma Linda University and one of Brockovich’s main detractors, has argued (PDF). Morgan’s research, based on studies done in 1997, 2000, and 2010, has found “no cancer excess” in Hinkley. Morgan has compared Brockovich to Don Quixote and inspired articles debunking links between cancer and environmental contaminants—the very basis of Brockovich’s fame. Bolstering Morgan’s case, a 2010 study by the California Cancer Registry also found that cancer rates in Hinkley were “unremarkable” between 1988 and 2008.

For her part, Brockovich has accused Morgan of “projecting junk science onto me when he’s the one doing junk science.” And she has plenty of support in her camp—the Center for Public Integrity has published a comprehensive debunking of Morgan’s debunking. The investigation, published in Mother Jones, found that key state and federal agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency—have found credible links between drinking hexavalent chromium, a rust inhibitor found in Hinkley, and higher rates of cancer.

It’s not just Hinkley, though.

A 2003 New Republic investigation found no evidence to support Brockovich’s claim that oil wells at Beverly Hills High School were spreading benzene, a chemical she alleged was causing cancer in students and staff. Health officials and local agencies couldn’t find any proof of a benzene-related health problem, and a subpoena of Brockovich’s testing data found that benzene readings in Beverly Hills were average.

The New Republic investigation also charged that Brockovich’s pattern of allegations without evidence went as far back as 1997, when Brockovich claimed she took a field test that showed an underground oil leak in Avila Beach, California, was poisoning local residents. Local authorities couldn’t find any evidence of contamination.

Not that any of this has slowed Brockovich down. In the 13 years since her biopic was released, she has continued to advocate on behalf of communities affected by harmful chemicals and contaminants; Brockovich is currently working with the residents of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, who have been told that their area is uninhabitable due to a growing sinkhole from underground waste storage. She’s given several commencement speeches, collected honorary degrees, and founded her own consulting firm, Brockovich Research & Consulting. She is also a consultant for two New York law firms, Girardi & Keese and Weitz & Luxenberg, and an Australian firm, Shine Lawyers.

True to form, her lawyerly instincts have come in handy as she does damage control in the wake of her DUI. In the statement released after her arrest, she was all too relatable.

“After a day in the sun and with nothing to eat it appears that a couple of drinks had a greater impact than I realized,” she wrote.