Ethical Issues in Erin Brockovich
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There are several ethical issues both personal and professional in this movie. In their first meeting, Donna told Erin that PG&E had paid for doctors’ visits for the whole family. However, PG&E was not doing this just to be nice, as they would have the residents believe, they had an ulterior motive. They sent them to specific doctors because these doctors would lie to them to cover up for PG&E. It was clear that PG&E must have paid these doctors to tell the residents that the water was safe and that their health problems were not associated to the chromium. The fact that a doctor would lie to a patient is just as, if not more unethical than what PG&E did by lying to the citizens. Although this issue was not dealt with in the movie, those doctors should have lost their right to practice. And, the company should have offered the residents of Hinkley the right to see another doctor of their choice, at PG&E’s expense.
The most evident ethical dilemma of this film is the dishonesty of PG&E about the type of chromium in the water, and the consequences that it had on the residentsof Hinkley. PG&E hid the truth from the people and allowed them to believe that their water was safe, when all along they knew it wasn’t. Donna Jensen told Erin that they even held seminar for the residents of Hinkley and passed out pamphlets to explain the benefits of PG&E using chromium 3 at their plant. Regular chromium is good for the body and chromium 3 is basically benign, however hexavalent chromium (or chromium 6) depending on amount is toxic and harmful to humans. It can cause chronic headaches and nosebleeds, respiratory disease, liver failure, heart failure, reproductive failure, bone or organ deterioration, and cancer. They led them to believe that it was perfectly fine to drink and ok for their kids to swim in the water. As it turns out, they had known about this problem for many, many years dating back to 1966.
Another example of dishonesty was the fact that the company was trying to buy the land that was contaminated by hexavalent chromiumbefore anybody realized it. They lied and said that an expressway was going to be built and they needed to build an off-ramp to the plant. They had already successfully purchased some of the land because a couple came forward and told Erin that PG&E had bought their house, but that they were concerned the women’s miscarriages may have been caused by the chromium.
After realizing that just about everyone in the town of Hinkley is sick and had medical problems related to the chromium, Erin convinces Ed to take this on as a lawsuit versus just a real estate case. Knowing that she is going to need more evidence now, she trespasses on to PG&E’s property to get samples of the water. Two PG&E employees see her, but don’t stop her in time. This was unethical conduct by Erin. However, right after this happens, Erin gets a mysterious call from someone trying to use scare tactics and threats to get her to stop investigating. It is obvious that it was someone from PG&E and that they had gotten her name from Scott – the employee at the water board, who got it off the sign-in sheet. This type of behavior, especially by a corporation, is unethical and made them seem desperate.
Although both Ed and Erin did some unethical things while investigating and working on this case, it was to the benefit of the residents and they were able to win the case. PG&E had to pay out $333 million dollars to the residents of Hinkley, and this was the largest settlement in history for a direct action lawsuit.