Meeting with Erin Brockovich (2017)Posted 03 Apr 2017 by John Phillips
If you begin to think you are the smartest guy/gal in the room, it is time to find a different room. We have lived this adage many times over the past few years.
When it came to us taking on over 100 cases where we alleged pediatric dental abuse and Medicaid fraud of over 100 children by their pediatric dentist, we flew in a grandmother who ran the leading blog on the subject and a well-respected lawyer from Texas who had already battled several dentists. It turned out well. The dentist is no longer practicing, he was charged by the State and 104 cases have been “amicably resolved.”
We have become a little known for what I call “social justice” cases, where the result sought is broader than financial recovery. The death of Jordan Davis, serial bullying in schools, the hundreds of people mislabeled on their state issued ID as sexual offenders and predators by the State of Florida and the above pediatric dental abuse cases are some of those examples where the work requested of my team was just as much outside of the courthouse as it was in it.
Recently, I have been asked to look at some more environmental based torts- from the International Paper plant explosion in Cantonment, Florida to the cancer clusters in Waycross, Georgia. Although car wrecks are still our “usual” case, we frequently get the “unusual” calls and I love the challenge of learning the science of each situation personal injury law presents.
I also quickly learned that these are “social justice” cases, too. Prisons and government housing built on toxic waste sites? Rural communities giving tax breaks to factories who rely on the more lax enforcement of the remote location as well as the lack of the oversight of investigative journalism by big city prying reporters? Environmental justice isn’t just the next big thing in tort law, it is one which our children and grandchildren need us all to learn. More than that, we need to all care.
In March, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Erin Brockovich. I remember the movie bearing her name vividly. In the film, Brockovich took on Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which was forced to pay over $300 million dollars for contaminating the water of Hinkley, California with toxic chemicals, causing clusters of cancer and other issues. It got Julia Roberts an Oscar in 2000 and propelled Ms. Brockovich into a household name and national advocate on environmental issues.
As good as Julia Roberts was, Erin Brockovich is better. She is still fighting on behalf of Americans affected by poisoned water. She’s a firebrand crusader, citing statistics and chemical compositions that will make your head spin. A two-hour lunch flew by where we discussed everything from pediatric dental abuse to politics (both of us firmly believe clean water is and should always be a non-partisan issue), and from parenting to social media. We then followed her to one of YouTube’s headquarters for an interview and then met back up for a dinner with her and some of the leaders in the toxic tort world.
As we sat at the Beverly Wilshire’s restaurant, The Boulevard, near the likes of Alec Baldwin and who knows who, I just soaked up what I could like a sponge. Her epic line, “Superman’s not coming,” was discussed. Like we saw when the moms and dads of 100-200 children protested and hit social media leading to shutdown of the aforementioned dentist, Brockovich and I discussed how we need moms and dads to rescue us all here, too. No lawyer or advocate can do it. People need to not only report problems and hold politicians accountable, but run for office and stand up.
In an effort to help, Brockovich has established a website where people can report environmental issues, cancer clusters and more- www.communityhealthbook.com/. As she pointed out to me, HIPAA and other laws prohibit a cancer reporting database and government reporting sites overlook key numbers all the time. We simply don’t know what we don’t know about how drastic of a problem we have. The problems in Flint, Michigan aren’t isolated issues. Not even close.
As cars become automated and robots replace people, I suspect the lawyer billboards seen by my children’s children will be different. We will be facing a series of environmental based epidemics caused by pollution, global warming, fracking and what we have done and are doing to our food, water, air and soil. As lawyers –actually as people- we need to think about that right now.