Lessons from "Erin Brockovich"

If tort reformers like George W. Bush had their way, greedy corporations like California public utility PG&E would still be poisoning their neighbors.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Now that the primaries are over and the presidential campaign is in a lull, George W. Bush ought to kick back, take a night off and go to the movies. My personal recommendation would be "Erin Brockovich," the new film by Steven Soderbergh that will surely be among next year's Oscar nominees. Seeing Soderbergh's rousing docudrama would be highly educational for Bush, a statesman with a notably short attention span and an aversion to wonkish policy papers.

Although the advertising and reviews have emphasized the remarkable performance of toothy diva Julia Roberts (and her push-up brassiere) in the title role, that isn't what makes "Erin Brockovich" a must-see for the Republican nominee.

No, the Texas governor should study this movie because its subtext concerns so-called tort reform, an excruciatingly dull topic out of which Soderbergh has fashioned a compelling story. Tort reform, for those who haven't been paying attention, is the catch phrase used by conservatives in their campaign to limit the legal liability of corporations that hurt or kill citizens, by negligence or design. An important part of Dubyah's recent claim to be a "reformer with results" derives from his success in pushing a major tort reform bill through the Texas Legislature a few years ago.

Actually, "Erin Brockovich" is about Bush, along with the Republican congressional leadership, former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the right-wing lawyers and jurists associated with the Federalist Society and the corporate lobbyists who have so lavishly financed the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee. All of the above are, in a certain sense, the movie's unseen villains -- because if their version of tort reform had prevailed during the period when this true story occurred, the heroine played by Roberts would have had no legal recourse against the company whose wanton water pollution injured and killed dozens of ordinary citizens.

For those Americans who may not have seen it yet, the movie's plot involves a giant electric utility that, for many years, has been casually polluting the water of a small California community with a toxic rust-prevention chemical called hexavalent chromium. Adding insult to such horrific injuries as breast and colon cancer, the utility firm has purposely misinformed its working-class neighbors, telling them that the chemical leaching from vast open pits into their water supply is good for them (which it would have been, if it had happened to be another type of chromium that is an essential human nutrient, but of course it wasn't).

The title character, a brassy, hard-luck divorcie working for a personal-injury lawyer, notices the suspicious correlation of cancers and other catastrophic illnesses in the vicinity of the utility's chromium-spewing installation. The company has been buying up its neighbors' homes for chump change, apparently in an effort to get rid of the problem on the cheap before anybody realizes what has been going on.

Motivated by the awful suffering of the families who have been unwittingly poisoned by this corporate crime, Erin Brockovich organizes them to assert their rights in court against Pacific Gas and Electric. She rummages through public records and develops sources like an investigative reporter until she and her boss have enough evidence to confront the utility. But before the story reaches its exhilarating payoff -- a settlement in the hundreds of millions -- Brockovich, her boss and their plaintiffs must leap the imposing hurdles of the judicial system.

That is where the roles of Bush, Starr, the Federalist Society and Congress become pertinent, even though the director and screenwriter didn't include them. Bush (along with his father, the former president) has pushed hard to curtail such litigation, on the grounds that punitive-damages awards are onerous to business and that frivolous lawsuits are clogging the courts. As solicitor general in the Bush administration, and later as a corporate appeals lawyer specializing in tort cases, Starr has often made the same arguments, echoing his friends in the Federalist Society and their allies on Capitol Hill.

For reasons best known to them -- but just possibly having to do with the enormous sums of money flowing into their campaign and personal accounts from major corporate defendants -- these conservative legal philosophers apparently believe that ordinary Americans ought to be defenseless against corporate depredations of the kind chronicled in "Erin Brockovich." First, they gutted the capacity of the federally funded Legal Services Corp. to bring class-action lawsuits against corporate malefactors on behalf of clients too poor to hire their own attorneys. Then they weakened enforcement of consumer, workplace safety and environmental statutes by federal agencies. And finally, they have tried to strip away the protections provided by tort laws, under which attorneys of the sort played by Albert Finney and Peter Coyote in this movie seek justice for injured plaintiffs -- and share in the proceeds only if they win.

The punitive damages awarded in tort lawsuits do more than occasionally enrich such lawyers and their clients. The loss of millions or even billions because of faulty products and polluting plants is a potent method of encouraging better corporate citizenship. (It has sometimes occurred to me that the most effective application of the death penalty would be to deter the worst kinds of corporate misbehavior, but that's a subject for another column.)

Hollywood studios invariably take liberties with the facts whenever they transform nonfiction into a motion picture. The real Brockovich may bear no resemblance to her filmic self, for example, and the facts of the case may differ significantly from the tale told on screen. But in one important respect, this morality play nevertheless rings true: the imbalance of power between individual citizens who live from one check to the next and a corporate mammoth worth billions.

By depriving citizens of the means to redress their grievances against powerful corporations in court, tort reform threatens to render meaningless our constitutional guarantee of equality before the law. It is the fulfillment of that guarantee that makes "Erin Brockovich" so inspiring to the audiences that loudly applaud its heroine's triumph as the credits begin to roll.

On second thought, maybe George W. should just skip Soderbergh's little masterpiece. What uplifts the rest of us might leave him feeling a bit depressed.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Crime George W. Bush Republican Party