The story of Erin Brockovich has been widely hailed as one of the more inspiring stories of the present day. The story of how a (formerly) unemployed single mother with three (3) children takes on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in an attempt to make the large company liable for the health impact that it has had on the residents of Hinkley has inspired many others to take up similar causes. The story has also caught the attention of Hollywood and was adapted to film in a movie entitled Erin Brockovich, which garnered many Academy Awards.
More importantly, however, this has also led to many ethical considerations, particularly in the practice of law in the United States. This short discourse will discuss some of those ethical considerations in the context of the legal profession in the United States. In order to arrive at a better understanding of how the movie and the story of Erin Brockovich amplified and contributed to the knowledge of the laws on ethics, it is important to first take a brief look at the facts of the case. As mentioned earlier, Erin Brockovich was formerly employed as a legal clerk.
Despite her lack of any formal legal education, she became instrumental in the case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), of California in 1993. At the heart of the case was the issue of the alleged contamination of the drinking water supply of Hinkley. Due to the presence of elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in the local wells, a health concern is raised by a number of people in the community. This led to the landmark case that saw the single largest settlement in United States history with a total amount of over US$330 million.
It is against this backdrop that the issue of ethics and the law will be examined. At the onset, it must be stressed that there are basically two ethical views that must be made in relation to the topic at hand. The first ethical consideration is from the more obvious side which is that of Erin Brockovich. While many critics have decidedly taken up an opposite side against the crusade of Erin Brockovich, the manner by which she stood up against the large company (PG&E) warrants an examination of the ethical considerations in this matter.
First off, the issue of doing what is right is a primary ethical concern. In the landmark case, Erin Brockovich and her partners took on the case against PG&E, a multimillion dollar corporation, for the benefit of the residents of Hinkley for free. There was no other promise or consideration involved in the building up of the case against PG&E save the fact that it would lead to justice for the affected residents of Hinkley. This is an act that few, if any, lawyers and law firms around the world would do.
The lawyer’s oath states that a lawyer should strive to help those who cannot afford justice. It clearly states that a lawyer’s duty is to help those in need without consideration for the ability of the client to pay a reasonable fee. The act done by Erin Brockovich clearly exemplifies this legal precept. The amount of time and effort, not to mention the legal fees that had to be advanced, in a multimillion dollar class action law suit such as the one Erin Brockovich led definitely shows the ethical character of the person.
While many would back down in the face of a large corporation and its battalion of lawyers, such was definitely not the case for Erin Brockovich, undeterred by the threats and the difficulty surrounding the case, she persevered, believing that justice needed a face, a defender. Another ethical consideration, albeit highly debated, is the issue on whether or not the suit was actually just a groundless or frivolous one. Many people mistakenly believe that if they are wronged they always have a cause of action or that somebody always has to pay.
This, however, is an unethical practice in law as it leads to the clogging up of the legal dockets and increasing legal fees for the parties involved. The law has always been there to defend the rights of the injured and the oppressed, yet it is the same law that has yielded to more ethical matters such as the consideration that not everyone can truly afford to file suit. This is the case in Erin Brockovich. In her bravado to save and protect those of Hinkley, she may have instituted a suit that set a dangerous legal precedent.
It is not being argued in this case that Erin Brockovich was wrong in instituting the suit. It is being suggested, however, that the same type of haste and urgency cannot be applied to all legal cases for ethical reasons. At the heart of the legal system is the principle that if a trip to court can be avoided then by all means it should be avoided. The filing of suits that can be settled out of court has a very important ethical reason; it allows others who have more urgent and pressing problems access to the already filled up courts in the United States.
The legal and scientific commentaries on the case of Erin Brockovich have cited the fact that there may not have been conclusive evidence as to the health concerns of the residents of Hinkley. Be that at it may, the point here is that legal cases must be properly founded first before they are brought to court. This discussion on the ethical duties of a lawyer leads to the next discussion which concerns the perspective from the other side, the side of the corporation and its own lawyers.
At the heart of this discussion lies the issue on whether or not a lawyer must defend a client even though the evidence of guilt is strong. It is a common misconception that a lawyer may choose to abandon his or her client upon knowing that the client committed a dastardly act or deed. As in this case, as portrayed in the movie, it was shown at the onset that PG&E was indeed part of a cover up to hide its liability in the poisoning of the water supply of Hinkley. The question that begs to be asked, therefore, is whether or not a lawyer may refuse to defend a party who has clearly been shown to be guilty.
Ethical guidelines for lawyers clearly require that a lawyer must afford his client an equal opportunity in court. No lawyer may refuse to defend a client on the basis of an extrajudicial finding of guilt. Even if a lawyer personally knows of the guilt of his client, such lawyer may not refuse to lend legal assistance to the client. This is founded on the basis that guilt cannot be determined by people, even lawyers. Only the courts are empowered to decide whether or not a party is guilty or not.
This is the reason why the courts of justice exist today. If everyone was allowed to pass judgment on the innocence of guilt of another without going to court, then the entire country would be in shambles. It is not suggested, however, that the lawyer must also condone the dastardly acts that the corporation has committed. As an ethical lawyer, one must always strive to let justice and equality prevail. While a lawyer is mandated to defend the client to the best of his abilities, the lawyer is not required to commit illegal acts for the client.
This therefore leads to the issue on whether or not the lawyers for PG&E were ethical in their behavior in the handling of this case. With hundreds of millions of dollars and the safety of an entire community at stake, the decision of whether or not to take up the cudgels for or against one’s employer presents an ethical dilemma. On one hand, there is the lawyer’s oath that one must always seek to uphold the rights of the oppressed and on the other hand, there is the duty to defend a client who has engaged one’s services.
As shown in Erin Brockovich, the corporation succeeded in rendering the ethical and moral compasses of the officers and lawyers ineffective. While ideally the perfect solution to this problem would be for the company to relent and sacrifice profits in order to repair the damage that was caused, this was not the case in this film. The greed that pervades many of corporate America’s boardrooms at the present time echoes loudly in this film. The film Erin Brockovich greatly amplified and contributed to the knowledge of the laws of ethics.
It presents many legal scenarios and dilemmas that a lawyer faces in daily practice. It also presents a view into the ethical nature of corporate America. As such, it serves as a shining example of the beacon of justice that is the United States legal system. Before conferring the highest ethical decree on this film, however, it bears pointing out that Erin Brockovich and her partner received close to 40% of the US$330 million that was given by the company.
Though the film enunciates the legal and ethical virtues of standing up against the sinful large corporations and fighting for the cause of the poor and the oppressed, one cannot help but wonder what ethical considerations were going on in the minds of Erin Brockovich and Masry as they collected their large portions from the settlement. Be that as it may, it does not detract from the moral of the story that shines brightly through the controversies and criticism with regard to the film and the real life story of Erin Brockovich; the moral that in everything that one does, in every profession, ethics must never be forgotten.
Money has a way of derailing the ethical and moral compass of people in the world today. The challenge, however, lies in realizing that there is sometimes a cause that goes beyond dollars and cents. There are other people in this world who deserve to be treated as such. The role of justice and ethics lies in ensuring that is never forgotten. “With liberty and justice for all…”