Topic: Professions & Institutions

Erin Brockovich's Ethics
(3/21/2004)

It surprises some people to learn that lawyers are not permitted by their ethics codes to engage in "dishonesty, misrepresentation, fraud or deceit." Another provision: they must only bring lawsuits that the lawyer believes, in good faith, have genuine merit.

The editor of a free weekly called the Beverly Hills Currier recently proved that attorney Erin Brockovich…yes, the same one that got Julia Roberts her Oscar…violated both provisions on her way to attempting a classic environmental lawsuit shakedown.

Last spring, Erin (who changed her name after re-marrying) and Edward Masry (remember Albert Finney?) publicly claimed that oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School were polluting the campus with benzene, a carcinogen, and causing Hodgkin's disease at sixteen times the expected levels among students, staff, and alumni. Since alumni include dozens of Hollywood figures, like Nicholas Cage, the media loved Brockovich-Ellis's "revelation"…could a movie sequel be in the works? CBS's Los Angeles affiliate, KCBS ran an "exclusive interview" on the test results the attorney had obtained at the school. Brockovich-Ellis told KCBS that after she first detected high benzene levels, six subsequent tests produced the same results. The New York Times, Good Morning America, the Economist and almost every paper and TV news outlet in between featured the story of the courageous pollutant crusader standing up for cancer victims once again. Most stories mentioned that the owners of the oil wells (the bad guys…remember the movie?) and the city leaders (remember "Jaws?") denied that there was a problem. Like they always do.

But Norma Zager, editor-in-chief of the tiny Currier, decided to do some checking. What she found was that Brockovich's "test results" were made up. Not one independent scientist felt her allegations were credible. From the Columbia Journal:

"Toxicologists, epidemiologists, and oil regulators all dismissed Brockovich-Ellis's and Masry's assertions as quackery: the wells weren't leaking, the air was relatively clean, and rates of Hodgkin's disease around the school were normal… "Is there any evidence that benzene at the levels found at Beverly causes cancer? No," says Thomas Mack, chief of the epidemiology division at the University of Southern California's medical school. "You're just as likely to get cancer from your car stereo."

It turned out that the tests taken by the Masry firm at the school showed mostly normal readings. The firm finally had to admit in court that Brockovich's much publicized claim that the school had a cancer rate "twenty to thirty times the national average" was based on nothing. Nothing except a desire for huge damages, of course.

There are trial lawyers, and perhaps Brockovich-Ellis and Masry are among them, who fervently believe that forcing industrial and corporate concerns to pay medical expenses and other damages to cancer victims is the right thing to do even when there's no evidence of fault or causation. They believe in using the tort system as a device for redistributing wealth to the needy. The ethics of this argument is for another day, although Ethics Scoreboard would point out that this argument would be more plausible if said redistribution didn't also include a large amount redistributed into the lawyer's bank account.

Even with good motives, however, the deception and intentional misrepresentation involved in Brockovich-Ellis's actions are unacceptable, and represent a flagrant violation of professional ethical standards. Watch carefully to see if the California Bar is willing to discipline a celebrity corporate bashing lawyer for the kind of tactics properly identified with sleazy fee-padding shysters. And let's see if the media gives any publicity to this sequel to "Erin Brockovich."

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