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Erin Brockovich Ethical Review of the Movie

In: Business and Management

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ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000)

Cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney.
Directed by: Steven Soderbirgh
Screenplay: Susannah Grant

The motion picture titled ‘Erin Brockovich’ is written by Susannah Grant and directed by Steven Soderbirgh and is based on true events between the years 1993 and 1996. Released in the year 2000, this Hollywood movie revolves around two characters: Erin Brockovich an American environmentalist and paralegal official. The other character is the US based power and gas firm ‘Pacific Gas and Electric Company’ (PG & E) which is responsible for providing gas and electricity utilities to almost 2/3rds of the northern Californian population. The events surrounding a much publicized and broadcasted case involving PG & E and residents of Hinkley, California expose a plethora of business and general ethical issues that form a sumptuous academic feast for any business student.

Before exploring the central characters of this story and inspecting the varied moral and ethical positions adopted by them in the movie, we must engage ourselves in creating a brief background study of the people and the institutions that play a pivotal role in this intriguing drama of business ethics and it’s relation with human psyche and actions.

Main Characters:

a. Erin ‘Patty’ Brockovich: Erin is a thirty three years old - twice divorced single mother of 3 children by the name of Matthew, Katy and Beth who age 8 years, 6 years and 9 months respectively in the beginning of the movie. Erin is a struggling single parent with little or no financial resources and is shown in the initial scenes of the picture trying her level best to acquire a job. Her primary concern at all times in the movie is the well being of her three kids. Whatever actions she takes as the story progresses are stemmed from the emotions that compel her to become what she considers to be a responsible and loving parent. She has an associate college degree and is shown as a onetime beauty queen as claimed by her own character.

b. Edward L. Masry: a lawyer in his mid 60’s, he is a partner in the law firm named ‘Masry & Vititoe.’ Masry is seen as a compassionate and hardworking lawyer but with bouts of self doubt and selfishness commonly perceived as signature signs of character in most old people. ‘Ed’ as he is called by his colleagues also betrays hints of self-importance when he is forced by Erin to hire her in the middle of a racket created by the later in his office. This peculiarity is, however more than compensated for by his actions toward Erin and the Hinkley residents as the movie progresses.

c. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG & E): PG & E is the second most important character in the movie. It provides for the negative role in the story line. PG & E is depicted by the director as a strong giant in the power and gas sector in the state of California with valuation of US Dollar 28 billion as is quoted by one characters that is shown as its employee in the film. The operations of PG & E Hinkley and its level of concern for the people living in that land forms the back-bone of the content of this story as well as this term paper.

d. Donna Jensen: Donna is one of the residents of Hinkley who lives very close to the PG & E Hinkley plant with her husband and family. A middle aged woman ailing from various diseases, she is the first person to be contacted by Erin and Masry for the purpose of launching a ‘direct action lawsuit’ against PG & E Hinkley to reach a substantial out of court settlement between the power giant and the victimized residents of Hinkley.

e. Charles Embry: an ex employee of PG & E Hinkley, Charles is a character that has a very short yet critical role in the story. It is Charles who contacts Erin and provides her with the much needed details that she needs to establish claims made by Hinkley residents versus PG & E.

f. George: a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, George is the love interest of Erin and delivers some ethical issues in the story that are related to Erin and her kids.

g. Pamela: another victim of the Hinkley contamination, having an unfavourable opinion about lawyers in general and Erin in particular.

ERIN BROCKOVICH & BUSINESS ETHICS.

Now that we are done with the background to the central characters in the story, let us dissect each moment in the movie and the character(s) present in it and find for ethical issues that stand out as worth consideration by the students of Business Ethics.

The first scene of the movie has Erin Brockovich, our heroine giving an interview for the position of an assistant to a doctor. She is shown as being overtly desperate to land this job as she answers every question in the affirmative citing personal interests that range from medicine to public relations to geology and geography. She even appeals to the interviewer to consider her case as she is a mother of three children. At this point, Erin’s words are motivated by the stages 1 and 3 of Kohlberg’s model of moral development i.e. Punishment and Obedience plus Interpersonal Concordance stage. She also displays heavy traces of ‘Ethics of Care’ as she is concerned for her kids.

Cut two: Erin suffers an accident that leads her to Masry & Vititoe law firm; her case is unsuccessfully fought by Ed Masry the firm partner. His assurance of Erin prior to the hearing fills her with the hope that she may just have a case to bank on. Over here Ed may be considered to display level 3 of moral development i.e. Interpersonal Concordance stage. Reason being that being an old timer and a veteran in the field of legislation and law, Ed just might have an attachment to acts that portray him as a truly caring person which in turn is expected to reflect his professional sincerity and commitment to his clients.

The movie now shows Erin hunting jobs ferociously and trying to contact Ed for some help with no success at all in both ventures. She is shown working in the office of Masry & Vititoe without the permission of Ed Masry which irks the later to no end, and as a result he asks Erin to leave the office premises. Erin creates a racket and a brief exhibition of professional shrewdness is depicted by both Erin and Ed. Erin asks for a job at Masry & Vititoe in a belligerent manner while Ed in the midst of efforts to control his temper and his reputation which is being attacked by Erin’s antics agrees to hire but with one final stroke; no benefits! Up till this point in the story, Erin is shown exhibiting traits of a person who is in the stage 1 as well as stage 3 of moral development, while Ed keeps stays in stage 3 i.e. interpersonal concordance.

Erin then meets her new neighbour George, the Harley Davidson enthusiast who immediately finds interest in her. George is shown having qualities of an individual who, for the sake of getting his own goals accomplished goes out of his way to work selflessly for others but only if the ends result of efforts involved is favourably guaranteed to him. George thus, bases his existence in the realm of level 1 of moral development where he performs his acts in accordance with the points related in the 2nd stage i.e. Instrument and Reliability. He continues to behave in exactly the same manner throughout the length of the movie. The main reason of this judgment of George’s character is his eagerness in taking care of Erin’s kids just for the chance of him forming a relationship with her.

As of this point in the timeline of the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’, the characters of Erin, Ed and George are all shown acting in ways that in some manner insure the reaping of their own fruits of labour. They are acting selfishly to reach their own goals of the well being of family, professional stature and personal relationships respectively. The first twist in the story comes at a time when Erin is given a task by Ed to open a pro-bono case of one Donna Jensen and PG & E. The box containing the legal documents contains medical reports of Donna, confusing Erin. She reads the medical reports of Donna that depict loss of white blood cells and increasing rate of lymphocytes in the latter’s blood stream. She also reads the letter by PG & E headquarters offering Donna a fair market value of 66,000 USD for her home in Hinkley near the Hinkley plant.

This is the point where Erin starts developing a concern for people in general and enters the sphere of stage 6 of moral development i.e. Universal Ethical Moral stage. She continues to remain in this stage till the very end. After Ed allows her to study Donna Jensen’s case, Erin meets up with Donna at the latter’s residence in Hinkley. Donna tells her that PG & E have looked after all the medical bills of the Jensen’s while at the same time offering them to purchase their home. Donna also tells Erin about the Chromium III issue involving the power company and Hinkley inhabitants.

Erin meets up with a university professor to acquire information about Chromium. He provides her with the knowledge that Chromium VI used in the cooling water for pistons to prevent corrosion if mixed with ground water can cause serious medical issues that can enter the DNA of those exposed. The scholar also directs Erin to the county water-board for detailed information about the issue at hand. Erin uses her questionable ‘public relation’ skills to get a profound reach to the documents that reveal the presence of Hexavalent Chromium or Chromium VI in the Hinkley ground water coming out from the PG & E plant in the town. But after this, she is fired from her job due to prolonged absence.

However, after some time Ed agrees to hire Erin back with demand made by Erin for a 10 % increase and medical care in return for the documents she now possesses. Erin, at this instance shows self-focused stage of moral development wanting personal benefits alone in the form of a job and for a fleetest of moments shuns level 6 of moral development i.e. Universal Ethical moral principles that she holds dear for a great majority of the story duration.

Once hired back, Erin restarts her investigation into the case, now with full support from Ed Masry. Erin and Masry meet new victims of the Chromium VI contamination by PG & E living in Hinkley. Ed Masry continues to jump back and forth between stages 6 & 1 of moral development. Whenever he finds a reason that he thinks might dent his finances and legal practice, he covers back to Stage 1 of moral development, but with constant motivation from Erin manages to move back to Universal moral ethical principles to support the poor residents of Hinkley.

It is imperative here now to discuss the role played by PG & E, the antagonist in our story. PG & E is a company formed in 1905 and enjoys a monopoly in the gas and power utilities sector in almost two-thirds of northern California. It is shown as a USD 28 billion corporate giant with all the muscles necessary to tighten up its opponents. The company operates a plant in Hinkley California that uses Chromium VI, a deathly chemical used in the cooling water for its pistons in the plant to prevent corrosion. This highly dangerous water is sent to the pools located outside the plant that are lined to prevent contamination in the surrounding area. However circa 1966, some of the pools have broken lining system that cause a consistent and constant mix of this water containing Chromium VI in the area water of Hinkley.

The ethical issues are raised when it is shown that PG & E informs area residents that it uses Chromium III, a relatively benign chemical for its work. It is this lie that compels this scribe to feel (and as rightly depicted by the director) that PG & E stands answerable to ethical and moral questions and authorities. It creates a very complacent image of PG & E burdened with an off-handed attitude towards the safety of the people whose land it utilizes to earn its multi-billion dollar profit every year.
It also establishes that PG & E did not care (at least until 1996, when the settlement was reached) and continued its operations based upon the theory of Utilitarianism that advocates for the maximization of benefits over the costs incurred no matter what means employed. By this measure, PG & E can also be considered working under the umbrella of Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism which dictates that only the fittest should be allowed to survive in the world with utter disregard for those lacking the financial strength required to make an attempt at survival.

Another sequence that shows PG & E’s deliberate effort to get rid of the case and non-seriousness towards the safety of the people of Hinkley is the series of monetary offerings it makes to Donna Jensen for her property and the people of Hinkley that range from USD 66,000 to Donna and 20 million to more than 600 plaintiffs on the whole. Whether be its refusal to admit the existence of health concerns created in Hinkley residents by its seepage of Chromium VI in Hinkley’s groundwater or the repetitive messages to the Hinkley station to get the land evacuated and the contamination reports destroyed, the moral and ethical pictures of PG & E management painted in front of this scribe are very grim indeed.

Coming back to the main story line, Erin continues to build up the case of Hinkley versus PG & E and finds many evidences and Hinkley victims willing to become plaintiffs. Ed once again experiences periods of self focused moral development stages as he decides to fight the case for the residents with a condition that he would receive nothing if the case is rejected by the court, a real threat to his finances and business as the costs of fighting a big giant like PG & E are shown as being immensely high as indicated by Ed himself. Erin and Ed continue to follow up the happenings surrounding the case for 18 months, during this time Ed engages ‘Kurt Potter’ in the case as makes him a partner for this as he believes that Potter’s expertise in water-contamination and chemical related cases makes him a very strong person to bank on for the success of Hinkley’s cause. Ed does this, however, without informing Erin, which enrages her and she leaves the office in a fury. During this time period, Ed shows his compassionate side and displays qualities imbibed in ‘Ethics of Care’ by sanctioning Erin a bonus as well as a new vehicle in recognition of her relentless efforts.

It is also during this time that George, Erin’s boyfriend gets tired of the time he has been taking out for Erin and her kids while losing on his own interest of biking and missing his friends as well. He walks out on Erin citing fact that he has not been rewarded by Erin for his commitment towards her and her kids. This shows behaviour of 2nd stage of moral development i.e. Instrument and Reliability on George’s part.
Pamela, another victim of Hinkley’s water contamination refuses to assist Erin and puts a ‘NO-SOLICITOR’ sign on her front door. She writes a letter in a local newspaper blaming Ed and Erin of cheating the residents of Hinkley. The director over here indicates an act of pure selfishness and thus self-focused moral development on Pamela’s part as she is portrayed as someone who may be offered a big amount by Hinkley to tarnish Erin’s image to avoid reaching a huge settlement denting PG & E. However at the end, it is shown, although implicitly that Pamela signs the petition against PG & E by allowing Erin inside her home: a change of heart on her part and a turn to 6th stage of moral development.

George returns to Erin and kids seeing her efforts, although it can be said that he does so acting in accordance with stages 1 and 3 of moral development to prove himself to Erin his love for her and kids as a true family member.
Ed’s new partner in the case, Kurt Potter reveals to him that PG & E Corporate denies any knowledge of the activities of its plant in Hinkley and therefore can deny offering the compensation to the residents of Hinkley. Potter informs Ed unless they manage to find a solution to this problem, their’s is a wild-goose chase.

During her trips to Hinkley to get the petition signed, Erin meets a person named Charles Embry, once a worker at PG & E station at Hinkley. Charles displays qualities of Ethics of Care by confiding in Erin that he lost his cousin due to the life-threatening substances used in the Hinkley station agrees to provide Erin with internal documents of communication between PG & E corporate and Hinkley station in which the corporate ordered Hinkley to bury the case and get the land evacuated. Charles Embry does so because of his character’s actions are in line with the Universal Ethical Moral principles stage of Post-Conventional Morality. He thinks selflessly for the entire Hinkley populace with no regard to his personal safety.
Equipped with this gripping proof of moral embezzlement by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG & E), Erin Brockovich and Edward Masry manage to win a record out of court settlement of USD 330 million for the victims of the Hinkley incident.

CONCLUSION:
Throughout the length of this movie, a few business ethics principles remain constantly in the audience’s view. Utilitarianism on the part of PG & E. Universal moral and ethical principles on the part of Erin Brockovich, Ed Masry, and Charles Embry ; Ethics of care shown by George, Ed Masry and Erin Brockovich herself. PG & E is shown as having some of its acts in line with Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism. The conclusion drawn by this scribe concerning the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’ and the business ethics issues that crop up in it is that companies should be honest and answerable to society and society itself must have a fair share of Post –Conventional Moral principles (as displayed by Erin and Ed) structured into its very own psyche, only then can a just, fair and sane social fabric come into existence.

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