From Working Girl to Madam: Julia Roberts Procures for the Trial Lawyers

Julia Roberts played a working gal in her first motion picture hit, Pretty Woman. Her career appears to have reached new heights with her portrayal of a cause-oriented heroine in Erin Brockovich. Perhaps Julia Roberts has indeed reached a new level. She’s moved from working girl to Madam Brockovich, getting rich by soliciting business for the trial lawyers.

A sassy legal secretary, Erin pushes her boss to sue Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for using a chemical that she believes leaked into the water supply and caused cancers in the small town of Hinkley, CA. The boss takes the case, teams up with some hot-shot trial lawyers, and wins a $333 million settlement.

The movie is based on a true story, and the real-life Brockovich is now hustling the media circuit, telling the world how she managed win compensation for the sick people in Hinkley and how she’s continuing to sue PG&E for other “offenses.” But a closer look at the story indicates that she may have other interests in mind: her own. In fact, the trial lawyers walked off with $133 million of the winnings and Ms. Brockovich pocketed a cool $2 million. That leaves less than $200 million for the 650 plaintiffs–which works out to a little more than $300,000 a piece. While the lawyers and Ms. Brockovich got rich, the after-tax compensation is small for the plaintiffs if the claims were legit. Then again, considering the dubiousness of the case, those winnings are not too shabby.

For starters, there are the general problems with science related to “cancer clusters.” These clusters are geographic areas where cancer rates exceed (or appear to) that of the general population. But attributing causes to clusters is difficult. When it evaluated 22 years of research in 1990, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that it could not establish a clear cause for any cluster. Determining causes is near impossible because most clusters occur by mere chance. According to Raymond R. Neutra of the California Department of Health Services, we can expect 4,930 such random cancer clusters to exist in any given decade in United States.

The “science” in the Hinkley case should raise some eyebrows as well. If the chemical at issue–chromium–caused a cluster, one would expect a relatively high number of incidences of the type of cancer that the chemical causes. Chromium supposedly causes lung and nasal cancer. Yet the bulk of Hinkley plaintiffs had unrelated aliments, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, arthritis, the flu, and club feet. Out of 650 Hinkley claimants, only six had lung cancers and four of those were heavy smokers. Only one plaintiff had nasal cancer. Hardly seems to constitute a cluster.

And then we should consider exposure levels and pathways. Some scientists say chromium has caused cancer in cases where workers were exposed to relatively high levels of airborne chromium in enclosed areas. In contrast, Hinkley residents likely were exposed to relatively low levels, which they ingested in drinking water. Comparing these very different scenarios is not good science–in fact, it’s hard to argue that it constitutes science at all.

But when you are trial lawyer, you don’t need sound science – junk science will do. And junk science works best when supplemented with the horror stories of real cancer sufferers (which you can find virtually in any community), which trial lawyers parade before sympathetic juries. It doesn’t matter how they got the cancer. The existence of suffering is enough for juries to award large sums to those individuals as well as the hundreds of healthy claimants that the jury never sees.

With the high costs of a defense against junk science and the stories of cancer sufferers, many companies prefer to settle, as PG&E chose in this case. The only real winners in such cases are the trial lawyers and, in this case, one brassy blond secretary who knows how to drum up business.

Ms. Logomasini ([email protected]) is director of risk and environmental policy at CEI.