Stakeholders in Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich is the nonfictional story of a single mother (named Erin Brockovich) of three children, who struggles to find a job. Against all odds, she manages to unite more than 600 plaintiffs, and she ultimately wins them $333 million in damages from the Pacific Gas and Electricity Company (PG&E) for polluting groundwater with hexavalent chromium. In looking at this particular case, it is helpful to have an understanding of the stakeholders and their views because it offers us insights with regard to each perspective. In many ways, the stakeholders in Erin Brockovich are analogous to those in the Love Canal case; the main stakeholders are Erin Brokovich and her team (representing the citizens), PG&E, the judicial system, and Charles Embry.[i]

Erin Brockovich, Ed Masry, and ultimately the big law firm whom they pair with, represent the interests of those most impacted by the elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in the water. Erin, much like Lois Gibbs in the Love Canal case, embodies the grassroots initiative to achieve environmental justice. Similar to Lois Gibbs, Erin’s resources are limited, at least until she works with the larger law firm. The source of Erin’s power stems from the citizens who are most affected by the hexavalent chromium in groundwater. Without their trust, Erin’s power is very restricted. Ultimately, she earns the plaintiffs’ confidence as all 634 of them sign on.

The other major stakeholder in this case is the electric utility PG&E. PG&E represents the corporate interests—similar to Hooker in the Love Canal case. Their goal is to keep the Hinckley scandal out of the media, so as not draw unwanted attention. Their power comes from the extensive network of people who rely on PG&E’s electricity, but because these people are not shareholders in the company, PG&E overlooks their interests. Furthermore, PG&E’s power comes from the shear amount of money they have. This enables them to pay for expensive lawyers, which grassroots interest groups typically cannot afford. In this way, PG&E has the power associated with money (resources) and corporate profits, whereas PG&E customers and Erin lack this power.

Another stakeholder in the Hinckley case is the judicial system. Due to the fact that case is brought before the judge in a binding arbitration, whatever the judge determines plays huge role even before the case can be brought before a jury. The judge could have decided to accept the strikes and demurrers[ii] (essentially a pleading that challenges a pleading filed by an opposing party) posed by PG&E, but instead he denies all 84 of them. As a resident of the county, the judge is disturbed that PG&E is sending out misinforming pamphlets to citizens in the area. For this reason the judge’s values and interests are strongly aligned with the citizens in the county.

Another stakeholder who has a significant amount of power is Charles Embry. He informs Erin that while working at PG&E, he is told by executives to shred documents: memos about ponds, readings from test wells, as well as internal documents. This corruption revealed by Charles Embry was the “cherry on top of the cake” for Erin and the citizens affected by PG&E’s harmful practices.

One stakeholder that is typically involved in this type of case, but was not in this instance, is the media. Especially in comparison to the Love Canal case, the media played a rather minimal role. Also similar to the Love Canal case is the fact that scientific research determined that the prevalence of sickness in Hinckley County was not statistically significant in comparison to a control group. This goes to show that statistical methodology is in some way deficient with regard to recognizing sicknesses originating from a point source of pollution. As Michael Brown from the Love Canal case puts it, “because residents move in and out, because families suffer different ailments…and because the survey populations are quite limited, attempts to prove a statistically significant effect may be doomed to failure.”[iii]

[i] DeVito, D., Shamberg, M., Sher, S., Grant, S., Soderbergh, S., Newman, T., Roberts, J., … Universal Studios Home Video (Firm). (2000). Erin Brockovich. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios.

[ii] http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/demurrer

[iii] Michael Brown, “A Toxic Ghost Town,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1989, 23-28.

Christopher Von Turk

About Christopher Von Turk

I am a junior majoring in Political Science at Davidson College, and I have a keen interest in energy and sustainability issues, in particular the Energiewende in Germany.

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