A single mother, with no formal education, brought an American powerhouse crashing down to £229million.
Erin grew up as the youngest of four children in a house where her father Frank was the disciplinarian—and also her hero.
Following graduation in 1980, 20-year-old Erin moved with a girlfriend to Newport Beach, California, to find work. She was happy to be on the West Coast, since her brother Tommy had also relocated there. But the good times didn’t last. By 1982, Tommy had moved away, and Erin was left to contemplate her future.
While roller-skating by the beach one afternoon, 21-year-old Erin met Shawn Brown, a local housepainter. Soon they were inseparable, and talking about marriage. In April of 1982, Erin and Shawn made it official. The newlyweds settled in Kansas City, 40 miles from Erin’s hometown.
In May 1983, 22-year-old Erin gave birth to her son, Matthew. But, before long, Erin’s marriage to Shawn began to unravel. Erin says she stayed with Shawn for the sake of their young son, and soon after, she gave birth to her second child, Katie. When Shawn was transferred for work, the young family moved first to St. Louis, and then to Lodi, California.
But Erin’s secret misgivings about the marriage led to her first round of panic attacks at age 24. A doctor concluded that it was anxiety, and when Shawn’s job uprooted the family again, Erin reached her breaking point.
In 1987, when Erin was 26, she and Shawn divorced. Erin knew she had to work, so she put her kids in day-care and took a secretarial job. By the spring of 1988, Erin started getting her life back on track. She also started dating her boss, a stockbroker named Steve Brockovich. The couple tied the knot in 1989.
Just a few months later, however, Erin’s second marriage hit hard times. In an effort to boost her self-confidence, Erin got breast implants. When that didn’t work, she began showing signs of anorexia. During this difficult time in her marriage, Erin sought help from a therapist who put her on the road to recovery.
In May 1990, when she was just 29, Erin and Steve Brockovich divorced. Erin kept the last name Brockovich, only because she didn’t have the $675 to change back to her maiden name.
Then Erin got surprising news - she was pregnant with Steve’s child. Though she was struggling financially, she made a courageous decision after she had a sonogram to keep the baby. But just four months into her pregnancy, Erin had a major car accident. Because of her pregnancy, no X-rays or MRI’s were taken, and no one realised that Erin had herniated her spinal cord. Moving a mere inch caused Erin excruciating pain.
In addition to her physical pain, Erin also suffered from financial hardship. The single-mum, with a baby on the way, had hit rock bottom. She drew inspiration from a quote by Calvin Coolidge that her father had told her as a child, about having persistence and pressing on.
In early 1991, Erin gave birth to her third child, Elizabeth. That summer, Erin took a short trip to Los Angeles with a friend. There, she fell for Jorge Halaby, a biker, and she made an impulsive decision to move back to California.
Once Erin and the kids were settled in L.A., Jorge introduced Erin to attorney Jim Vititoe, of the law firm, Masry & Vititoe. Vititoe filed a lawsuit on Erin’s behalf and helped her get the neck surgery she desperately needed. During Erin’s recovery, Jorge moved in and helped care for the kids.
The settlement from Erin’s accident lawsuit provided less than she had expected, and her father suggested that she return home. But Erin refused to be defeated. Desperately in need of a job, Erin contacted the one place she felt owed her the chance to prove herself - the law firm of Masry and Vititoe.
In August of 1992, 32-year-old Erin started at Masry and Vititoe answering phones for $300 a week. Though her sexy attire set her apart from most others in the office, Erin showed she was an asset to the firm when boss Ed Masry came to her with a real-estate pro bono case that needed filing. On the surface, the case concerned Pacific Gas & Electric’s interest in buying a family residence in Hinkley, California - but Erin began to dig deeper when she noticed there were blood samples mixed in with the real estate files.
Though she had no formal legal training, Erin’s instincts kicked into gear, and she asked Masry if she could investigate the case further. What Erin discovered was that Pacific Gas & Electric had allowed the leakage of a contaminant called Chromium 6 into the well-water of Hinkley, California, for over 30 years. Several residents of this small desert community were suffering from ailments ranging from chronic nosebleeds to cancer.
A combination of her feisty spirit and sex appeal gave Erin access to places where others had been denied. As she toiled to build evidence on the case, Erin and Ed Masry formed an unlikely, yet unbreakable, bond. Erin also formed close relationships with several of the residents of Hinkley.
Erin was relentless in her search for the truth, and the personal sacrifices she made were enormous. By now her romance with Jorge, the biker, had cooled. Yet the law firm employed him for several years as the children’s live-in nanny so Erin could commit herself fully to the Hinkley case. Erin’s persistence paid off, and in 1993, 634 Hinkley residents hired Masry & Vititoe to sue PG&E.
After nearly four years in arbitration, the Hinkley case was settled behind closed doors for $333 million - the largest direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. The underdog, dyslexic girl from Kansas, who doubted she would amount to much in life, had brought a multi-billion-dollar corporation to its knees.
But Erin’s tireless work ethic caused the pain from her years-earlier car accident to resurface. She sought out a chiropractor to relieve her suffering, and shared details of her life during their sessions. Erin’s chiropractor happened to have another client, Carla Santos-Shamberg, who was an executive at Danny DeVito’s production company, Jersey Films. Santos-Shamberg envisioned the movie version of Erin’s life as 'Rocky' in a mini-skirt, and in 1995, Jersey Films paid Erin $30,000 for her life rights.
When completed, the screenplay was immediately sent to noted director Steven Soderbergh. Soon, Julia Roberts signed on to portray Erin, and the movie got the green light. But this wasn’t the only good news that would catch 37-year-old Erin by surprise. She also found out she had earned a $2.5 million bonus from the Hinkley case.
When the film ‘Erin Brockovich’ opened in March 2000, it catapulted the real Erin Brockovich into overnight stardom. Suddenly, 40-year-old Erin was a household name and the world was eager to meet the real woman who had inspired the movie.