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Burden of Proof

The Real Erin Brockovich

Aired April 3, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "ERIN BROCKOVICH")

ALBERT FINNEY, ACTOR: Erin, how's it going?

JULIA ROBERTS, ACTRESS: You never called me back. I left messages.

FINNEY: You did? Well, I didn't know that. Donald seems to think that you said that...

ROBERTS: There's two things that aggravate me, Mr. Masry: being ignored and being lied to.

FINNEY: I never lied.

ROBERTS: You told me things would be fine. They're not. I trusted you.

FINNEY: Sorry about that. I really am.

ROBERTS: I don't need pity, I need a paycheck, and I've looked. But when you've spent the past six years raising babies, it's real hard to convince someone to give you a job that pays worth a damn. Are you getting every word of this down, honey, or am I talking too fast for you?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: For the third week in a row, America's favorite movie is the story of a scrappy legal assistant who wins millions for her clients. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the real Erin Brockovich.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

In the three weeks since it opened at theaters nationwide, the film based on the real-life story of legal researcher Erin Brockovich has earned more than $75 million. In the case the movie is based upon, Brockovich played a key role in winning much more than that for her clients. Her tenacity and unorthodox research methods were instrumental in a $333 million verdict for victims of water contamination in a small California town.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "ERIN BROCKOVICH")

ROBERTS: It's for my boss. He's in this water dispute and he wants me to find all kinds of papers just from all kinds of places. You know, it would probably be easiest if I just squeezed back there and poked around myself. Would that be all right with you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Oh, heck, yes. Come on back.

FINNEY: That document you found at the water board, the one that says about the bad chromium, you didn't happen to make a copy, did you?

ROBERTS: Course I did.

FINNEY: Well, could I have a look at it?

ROBERTS: I want a raise, and benefits, including dental.

FINNEY: Erin, this isn't the way I do business.

ROBERTS: What way is that?

FINNEY: Extortion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Julia Roberts portrays her in the film, but joining me today from Los Angeles is the real Erin Brockovich. Also in Los Angeles, Ed Masry, the attorney who put Erin to work. And here in Washington, Raymond Downs (ph), civil attorney Victor Schwartz, and Chris Darmanin (ph). And in the back row, Suzanne Phillion (ph) and Danny Mckenzie (ph).

Erin, let's go right to you. How true is this movie to your life?

ERIN BROCKOVICH, LEGAL RESEARCHER: It's very, very, very accurate. It depicts my being a single mother and raising three children and kind of picking myself up from the bootstraps and coming to work for the law firm and stumbling upon and uncovering the ground water contamination in Hinkley, California.

COSSACK: OK, let's step back a second. Now, there came a time when, all of a sudden, you went to work for Ed Masry. What caused you to go to work for Ed Masry and what were your interests? Did, you know -- did you want to be a lawyer? Did you -- was this something that you thought this was going to be great to do?

BROCKOVICH: Well, the reason I came to work for Ed, he and his partner Jim Vitato (ph) represented me in my car accident. I was in a car accident and had a C-5, C-6 dissectomy that the law firm had taken care of me on and handled by litigation. The case didn't ultimately end up the way that we had thought it was going to go and I needed a job and I needed to feed my kids. Ed didn't want to hire me but I talked Mr. Vitato into giving me a job. And, frankly, I didn't care what I did. I just wanted a job. I could answer phones, I knew I was good with people, I was organized, I had good secretarial skills, and I just wanted to go to work.

COSSACK: OK, but the job that they hired you for was to be, in a sense, I guess, sort of a filing clerk. Is that where you first got interested in this case and in the matter that you eventually began to investigate?

BROCKOVICH: Yes, what happened was Mr. Masry had brought me a file down to the business litigation department where I was working and asked me to open, you know, the file. And I wasn't really sure what it is he wanted me to do, but I wasn't going to tell him I couldn't do it. So I took the file and started looking through it just because I wanted to maybe be one up on somebody else, maybe get noticed by Mr. Masry. So I started looking at the medical records that were in the file and I became curious as to what was making these people's immune systems off, their T-cells were suppressed. They had clearly defined laboratory tests that I could read and understand, and it gave me an indication that something was wrong with these people. And it got my curiosity up. That's what started the whole thing.

COSSACK: Erin, when you eventually realized all of this, did you take it to Ed Masry and try and say, look, you know, I think we got a problem here. We should do more about it? What happened?

BROCKOVICH: Oh, yes, well, I asked Mr. Masry if I could look into it further, and he said, sure, kid, go ahead. He's pretty notorious for his saying, yes, kid, go ahead and do that. I always checked in and out with Ed, though. I never, ever assumed that I necessarily knew anything about the law. I had any questions, I always deferred to Ed. He and I have been side by side since the beginning going on nine years now. And if I ever have a question or a problem, I'm either on the phone or I get back to him right away. And that's what I did in Hinkley.

And I would go out and I would just talk to one person that would lead me to a next that led me to the next. I'd get into the water boards, I'd start uncovering documents, I'd bring them back, I'd share them with Ed. And everything became a snowball effect and I just started following lead after lead after lead.

COSSACK: Ed, there came a time when, all of a sudden, Erin Brockovich is showing up in your office with all of these documents and all of these files. Did you begin to wonder what's going on here and what do I have here?

ED MASRY, PLAINTIFFS' ATTORNEY: Well, it's kind of like quick sand. The first thing you know, you got a toe in it and then you're up to your ankles, then in your knees. And, of course, all the time you're beginning to drown financially. So it was quite a hair-raising event in our lives.

And, certainly, you know, the one person that really hasn't had enough credit through all this is my wife because she signed notes and sold properties without hesitation or equivocation. And at that time, I was 60 years old and we were, in effect, rolling everything we had on a lawsuit. So it -- but Erin is just so damn good. But I always knew one way or the other we were going to prove liability on PG&E.

COSSACK: Ed, did you -- was there a time when said, you know, what exactly is Erin doing out here? I mean, all of a sudden she starts showing up to your office with reports and papers and files. And did you begin to say, you know, what exactly is going on and what exactly is she doing?

MASRY: Well, working with Erin is kind of like you've got an all-pro tail-back and you're supposed to run a play over a right end. And the tail-back takes off over tackle, scores a touchdown. You can't very well tell her, what in the world were you doing going over tackle? You know, she made the touchdown. Now, that's basically Erin. Just give her the ball, let her find her opening and let her go, and that's the best way you're going to get results from somebody like Erin Brockovich. Erin is actually a very brilliant person. Fortunately, she never went to law school.

COSSACK: So her brilliance is still in effect, right, Ed?

MASRY: That's correct.

(LAUGHTER)

COSSACK: Erin, there came a time you started, you know, delving into these papers. I mean, what were you thinking about? Did you look and you said, look, there's problems here, there's symptoms here? When did you start putting it together and when did you conclude, it's in the water, folks?

BROCKOVICH: Well, the first thing for me was the people, and they're always the ones I'm most concerned about. I listen to them. I think a lot of us tend to dismiss when somebody says, you know, I've got rashes or nose bleeds. Or I don't know that they could be hypochondriacs or it could be weather. I don't know that we've ever stopped and listened to what people are saying to us.

But why I was out there, I started noticing that there was very similar problems amongst everybody that I was meeting that had lived in this area that was outside of the plant. They complained of similar rashes, stomach problem, nose bleeds, problems with their animals. That made me very, very curious. I actually went into my own neighborhood in Northridge, California thinking because it was inner city that I might see higher incidence of asthma, respiratory and problems like that, and started going door-to-door in my own neighborhood. And nobody had the same problems that they had in Hinkley, yet Hinkley, California is out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, there would be nothing else out there that I could think of that would be hurting these people, except there was this large PG&E gas compressor plant.

And once I got into the water board and there was clean-up and abatement orders, it was clearly depicted that they had a hexavalent chromium ground water problem. And I was able to get my hands on their consultants' reports and start piecing together. It became pretty clear that there was definitely a problem, the chemical of concern was hex-chromium, and I was convinced these people were sick. They used their water for all purposes. They were on wells, they used it to swim in, they showered in it, there were swamp coolers, they used all that water. Plus the towers from the plant produced a lot of mist. People would jog through, play with. The reservoirs out there were filled with all the contaminated water. It was their world. And I was easily convinced that these people were sick. And they all had one common denominator, and it was the water.

COSSACK: Erin, you told me you began to knock on doors and just start talking to people. How did people respond to you? I mean, did they think, you know, who are you? what are you? what are you doing it?

BROCKOVICH: A lot of people responded to me in various way, I mean, these people had already been through a bad enough deceit, employees from San Francisco -- actually I believe certain executives from PG&E came down and went to these people's home, sat in these people's home, and told them it was a little bit of chromium, it wouldn't hurt you, and that there was really no problems.

I was surprised that some people allowed me to come in and tell them the opposite, because they had already been told one thing. So they were, some were hesitant with me...

COSSACK: Erin, let me just interrupt you for a second. We have to go now to the State Department to Jamie Rubin, who is discussing Elian Gonzalez.

JAMES RUBIN, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: ... is probably well- known to many of you because in an unusual situation the names have been published already in the Cuban media. It's not our practice to give out the names of each one of those visa applicants. The immediate family is obviously part of that list, as well as classmates of Elian Gonzalez, teachers, medical personnel and the president of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon.

That is the list that we've received. We received those earlier today. We do expect to be making decisions on these visa applications fairly quickly. It has been our policy for many, many days now that we have indicated that we will stand ready to expedite the processing of visa applications for the immediate family of Elian Gonzalez.

QUESTION: What about the applicants who are not members of the immediate family?

RUBIN: Well, that is obviously what is being reviewed right now. That review is ongoing. I can't predict the outcome of that review other than to say that obviously we stated our policy in the past for very good reason in trying to make sure that whatever happens in this case is consistent with the American national interest.

Yes?

QUESTION: And are there any individuals on that list who would be excluded by the regulations of the... RUBIN: I'm not aware of any presumptive exclusions, other than to say that the presumptive acceptances are the immediate family, and the rest will be reviewed on a cast-by-case basis, based on what we regard to be the national interest. That process will be ongoing during the course of the day.

QUESTION: Mr. Alarcon, is he not -- there's no -- is there anything that would keep him from getting a visa...

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIN: I think he's traveled to the United States before in conjunction with his duties as part of discussions at the United Nations. So he's not not been to the United States.

On the other hand, what we have said is that we would expedite the processing of visas for immediate family members.

RUBIN: And we did that because of the nature of the case, and what we regard the nature of the case to be. And to the best of my knowledge, Ricardo Alarcon is not a member of Elian's immediate family.

QUESTION: Does that mean that basically for the immediate family it's pretty much a done deal?

RUBIN: Well, I'm trying to be as candid and forward-leaning as I can prior to decisions being made. There have been no visas yet proferred at this time. They're going to be processed as quickly as possible.

And the presumption is that those visas for immediate family members is something we will process favorably and quickly. Beyond that, we're going to have to review each of the individual requests.

QUESTION: Could you put a time frame on that? Could we expect the family visas to come out as early as today? And how about the time frame on the others? Today, tomorrow, next week?

RUBIN: Yes. The U.S. government officials -- and let me be very frank here, the State Department's role is to meet with the Cubans, receive the visa requests, consult with other agencies of the U.S. government, try to make a government-wide decision that we're all comfortable with, and then get back to the Cuban government through our Interests Section to provide the visas.

There are a number of agencies, obviously, that have an equity in a case as complex and politically sensitive as this has become. And we're trying to do this by the book, do it based on the national interest. So there may be some time elapsing between the arrival of a request and the proferring of a visa.

I think it's fair to say that those visas that fall in the category where we've already indicated our presumption should be able to move quite quickly. RUBIN: But whether we deal with each and every one in a matter of hours, I doubt it. But we're going to be moving as quickly as we can.

QUESTION: No, that was my question.

RUBIN: Yes?

QUESTION: Are there group visas given for Cuban citizens? Is it possible that...

RUBIN: Group visas?

QUESTION: ... they would be considered as a group? For example, a head of a group of people who may have been waiting in line for visas? All that...

RUBIN: Well, obviously when we say we're going to expedite the processing of visas in this case -- and we said that last week we would expedite the processing of visas for Elian Gonzalez's immediate family -- that does involve expediting it. Beyond saying that, there are separate passports that have been offered to us to be stamped with visas, each separately. So there aren't any group requests. Might we come back and say, we'll do these today and these tomorrow, I just don't want to prejudge the way this going unfold in the coming days.

Obviously, there's been intense discussion all morning, interagency deliberations have already begun. And we're going to review the other categories, the categories of classmates, teachers, medical personnel, as well as the president of the national assembly, Ricardo Alarcon.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what kinds of visas these would be and how long they would be good for?

RUBIN: Well, I think once the decision is made, as to processing, making a decision that it's this kind of visa for this amount of time, we'll be trying to communicate that information to you, as quickly as we can as the day unfolds.

But I don't want to prejudge that before we've made any decisions.

COSSACK: All right, we've been listening to Jamie Rubin discussing the Elian Gonzalez case. he has indicated that the State Department will act to expedite the visas for the immediate family of Elian Gonzalez, and will review other applications for visas on a case-by-case basis.

Stay with us, we'll have more with the real Erin Brockovich on BURDEN OF PROOF when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "ERIN BROCKOVICH") UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Don't tell me I don't work hard. Don't tell me I don't have the right to stop, take a breath, and enjoy life. And what the hell do you know about any of this anyway, huh? Something like this, it could take forever. They are a huge corporation. They could bury us in paperwork for the next 15 years. I'm just a guy with a small private firm.

ROBERTS: Who happens to know they have poisoned people and lied about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: In 1996, attorney Ed Masry, with legal assistance from researcher Erin Brockovich, filed suit against Pacific Gas & Electric. Because of continued litigation, Pacific Gas & Electric declined to join us today or provide a statement.

Well, Ed, there came a time in this lawsuit when a decision had to be made, the serious decision regarding whether it was going to be a jury trial, or whether you were going to go to mediation, arbitration. Tell us about that decision?

MASRY: Well, actually, the decision before was probably the most important decision we made. My law firm had run out of money, we had run out of resources, we had been fighting PG&E on our own for two years, and they had promised to break us, and that's what they did. Fortunately, we ran into Tom Girardi and Walter Lack, who had the moxie and the power and the financial ability that we didn't have. They carried the ball, and it was they who went ahead and tried the case against PG&E.

And unfortunately in the movie, they couldn't really address it. There wasn't enough time. But Walter Lack and Tom Girardi are just outstanding lawyers.

COSSACK: But this decision to go to an arbitrator rather than a jury, why was that made?

MASRY: Well, being practical, unless you do that, you're going to be fighting this out for 15, 20 years because they will only let you try 20 or 30 plaintiffs a year. So by the time you get through, you are going on and on and on and every year you are expending millions in costs. And so they just simply wear you down.

The best thing that happened actually for PG&E and us was that arbitration because it put a lid on PG&E's exposure of $400 million, they couldn't go above that. Now it could have been possible, we could have got a runaway jury hit them for a couple billion dollars. It also would have been possible we could have gotten nothing.

So, from a business standpoint, the smartest thing we did was go into that arbitration.

COSSACK: Victor, as an expert in these kinds of actions, we always -- you know, we root for what appears to be real justice here with Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry, but is the defendant put at a disadvantage in these kinds of lawsuits?

VICTOR SCHWARTZ, CLASS-ACTION ATTORNEY: Well, they are going to be put at a disadvantage after this movie in future cases because the jurors are going to expects Julia Roberts to pop out, I don't mean that in the wrong way, right in the middle of the trial. And the burden of proof, the name of the show, is on the plaintiff.

Once you have publicity like this, it puts all similar cases in great jeopardy, and it is going to be difficult to get a fair and impartial jury in the future.

COSSACK: But that is something that, you know, we run into all the time with high-profile cases. You know or this isn't certainly the first movie that has ever made about a legal issue, a sympathetic legal issue.

Putting that aside, does -- PG&E certainly has more muscle than Ed Masry and Erin Brockovich had?

SCHWARTZ: At the time they did, but not now, it has changed and causation, which is -- Mr. Masry would know about this a lot -- is a very difficult thing, and people can have diseases and be near something, and those diseases would arise even if they weren't near something. And it's the job of PG&E or any defendant to let the jury realize that maybe, although something very bad happened to somebody, it wasn't caused by what they were near, but that's going to be real tough now. Because this movie has been seen by millions of people, and they're going to go in with the burden of proof being on the defendant, not on the plaintiff.

COSSACK: Erin, you had to go around and convince the people that it was OK to go to a arbitration rather than go ahead and have a jury trial. And people expected a jury trial, didn't they?

BROCKOVICH: Yeah, I believe they did, and boy, that convincing was, you know, a hand in hand. Ed never, ever left my side throughout the entire time. It was an incredible team effort. But I believe that the people ultimately they just trusted us, and you know, we go out with them, me especially, to try and educate them, not to try and convince them. We just give them the facts. They usually come to conclusions on their own, but ultimately they were happy with their decision. Like Mr. Masry said, it could have been a situation where, today, they still might not have seen any justice or had a resolution for ultimately what had happened to them. So the outcome for them was good, and once they had an opportunity to sit down and talk with us and weigh all the facts, they made the decision themselves.

COSSACK: All right, Erin, now you are involved in another lawsuit against PG&E in Kettleman Hills, what's this one all about?

BROCKOVICH: In 1995, as I was doing Hinckley, there was a subcontractor that had indicated he felt there was clearly problems out at Kettleman. I knew from the employees at Hickley that they had also used hexavailant chromium (ph). So I went out to Kettleman, started looking, and snooping around, ultimately ended up at the regional water quality control board and started a record search. And one of the first documents that I found was a 1964 document from the Department of Interior of the United States to PG&E, San Francisco, notifying them that they had excessive chromium in their on-plant yard well, and the files were just sitting there, and nobody was doing a thing about it.

And as I got more involved and went out there and started to uncover, again, people were sick, they had an on-site company housing unit, where the employees lived with their wives and their children, and some farmers that lived up close to the plant. Again, I was seeing exactly the same thing I was at Hinckley, but I was uncovering documents that clearly showed, after they stopped using the hexavailant chromium in the open system (ph) at Hinckley, they continued to use it in Kettleman until 1979.

COSSACK: Well, Erin, let me ask you this: Are you having any health problems yourself?

BROCKOVICH: When I used to come home from Hinckley, I would have nose bleeds and skin rashes, and frankly I never talked to anybody about that other than Edward. Because I was in the same position as the people were. Oh, you know, it's a dry windy day, it's the elements, there is nothing wrong with you.

COSSACK: Erin, I have to interrupt you again, and I am sorry because that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Later on "TALKBACK LIVE": What's best for Elian Gonzalez? Phone, fax and e-mail your opinions of the continuing standoff over the 6-year-old boy from Cuba. That is at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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