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Film & TV

Oct 8, 2010

Is Erin Brockovich’s image losing its Shine?

Boosted by her Hollywood success, crusading legal eagle Erin Brockovich has attached her name to numerous firms, including Shine Lawyers in Australia. But does he know about Shine's shady past, asks Neil Walker

Remember Erin Brockovich? The 2000 film starring Julia Roberts as the titular legal secretary who fought evil big business and won financial compensation for the small Californian town of Hinkley, where residents suffered illness as a result of corporate pollution, was a box-office hit with Roberts winning the best actress Oscar.

The film kicked Julia Roberts’ and director Steven Soderbergh’s careers up to another level and provided a platform for the real-life Erin Brockovich to continue being an advocate for the little guys against big business. A decade later, it’s no surprise to see Brockovich still cashing in on her fame, by endorsing a Queensland firm of solicitors, Shine Lawyers, in a TV ad campaign.

Shine Lawyers is a “no win — no fees” personal injuries firm that specialises in litigation on behalf of individuals against corporations. Its website is dominated by Brockovich’s sales pitch, in which she states: “For over 15 years I’ve fought on behalf of innocent people who have suffered harm at the hands of irresponsible companies. Now I’m working with Shine Lawyers, a firm who shares my passion for taking on tough cases… I work with them and I trust them.”

It would appear to be the perfect match. Dig a little deeper though and another, less impressive, story also emerges.

In 2003, Shine Lawyers’ managing partner Stephen Roche was found guilty of professional misconduct by the Solicitors Complaints Tribunal and suspended from practice for 12 months. Shine Lawyers was then known as Shine Roche McGowan and Roche was suspended for overcharging a vulnerable client for legal services.

Despite agreeing to only charge a $395 flat administrative fee in a case where a complainant was suing for medical malpractice, $129,929 was billed “in respect of items of work of a clerical or secretarial nature involving no legal skill in respect of which no charge should have been made”. Notable examples including time charged for “wrapping a box of chocolates to be given to a reporting doctor’s secretary by way of thanks for facilitating the correcting of a report”. Time was also charged for discussing the buying of the gift.

Roche appealed but the Supreme Court of Queensland dismissed the action with the judgment and penalty standing. The court noted: “it is repugnant to think of a solicitor withholding detail from a client, precedent to an agreement, to the solicitor’s advantage and their client’s disadvantage” and “the fees charged by the respondent’s firm were exorbitant and well outside those charged by any reasonable practitioner”. The court noted Roche was “basically honest” but had an “apparent lack of contrition, and the absence of an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing”.

Brockovich indicated, via email, that she was “happy to talk” when initially contacted for comment, before falling silent. Strangely, an anonymous tip was received from someone who had apparently read the email correspondence advising: “Don’t hold your breath waiting for Erin or Shine to respond… Erin is happy as long as she is getting paid.”

Perhaps it is not so surprising. As far back as 2000, the year the film that literally made her name was released, Salon reported some Hinkley residents were questioning where some of their $US333 million settlement went, including $US10 million billed for unexplained expenses.

Journalist and attorney specialising in science and health issues Michael Fumento has also written a series of scathing articles, claiming Brockovich has “never crusaded for anything but lucre”.

To loosely paraphrase another Oscar-winning character, Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates delivered to a doctor’s secretary. Just make sure you know how much the legal bill is you’re going to get.

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10 comments

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10 thoughts on “Is Erin Brockovich’s image losing its Shine?

  1. JamesH

    Whatever Brockovich’s conduct in this particular case, I would seriously question whether Fumento is a reliable authority on anything, including Erin Brockovich.
    Here, for example, is Fumento’s series of articles arguing that HIV does not cause AIDS and that heterosexual AIDS is a myth. Here are his articles claiming that global warming doesn’t exist. Here are his articles claiming that there is no risk from passive smoking, and here are his collected articles claiming that no form of regulation of pollution is ever justified.

    Erin Brockovitch could be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and the Fumentos of this world would still oppose her. The pollution lobby has very deep pockets.

  2. Graham Dent

    I did not know the history of Shine Lawyers – but given EB’s statement: “Now I’m working with Shine Lawyers, a firm who shares my passion for taking on tough cases… I work with them and I trust them.”

    As she still lives overseas, I wonder what work, other than promotional, including being rolled out from time to time to perhaps give a talk or spruik up an issue, does she actually do for them, or more particularly, do for any of the firm’s clients.

  3. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Several ‘no win no fee’ lawyers are currently engaged in an advertising war in Queensland. Clearly there are benefits from competition but equally, there is a downside. Thanks Neil Walker for your interesting observations.

  4. Flower

    Stephen Roche is not the alter ego of Brockovich and Shine is not the only legal firm Brockovich engages in her environmental crusades.

    The Department of Environment in WA is a sycophant to big polluters which led some 250 affected and desperate victims of Alcoa’s hazardous waste emissions at Wagerup, to seek assistance elsewhere – enter Brockovich.

    The class action by Australians, against Alcoa, lodged in Pennsylvania includes allegations of knowingly, negligently and recklessly operating its factory and poisoning surrounding communities with toxic emissions. Sick residents claim they suffer from uterine cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, heart complications, sinus and skin problems, and even death as a result of the pollution from the plant.

    This week citizens around the world were reminded of just how toxic alumina operations can be to humans and the environment when reading of the carnage caused by bauxite sludge in Hungary.

    During the 90s, the Department of Environment in WA gave Alcoa’s muck to commercial farmers as a fertiliser. Sprinkled over each hectare were up to 30 kilograms of radioactive thorium, six kilograms of chromium, more than two kilograms of barium and up to one kilogram of uranium.

    On top of that there were 24 kilograms of fluoride, more than half a kilogram each of the toxic heavy metals arsenic, copper, zinc, and cobalt, as well as smaller amounts of lead, cadmium and beryllium.

    More than 7,600 tonnes of Alcoa red mud was poured directly onto one Quentin Treasure’s farmland at Yarloop, about an hour’s drive south of Perth. About 23,000 more tonnes were poured onto the lands of 12 neighbouring farmers. That’s when the cattle started dying!

    Thank God for Erin Brockovich!

    Michael Fumento, of course is an industry shill and is closely affiliated with conservative think tanks in the US, the recipients of laundered money from the fossil fuel industry. He also has a history of misrepresenting research and of getting fired for misconduct.

    There are no official allegations that I know of – no law suits past or present charging Brockovich with malpractice or of extracting excessive fees from clients – directly or indirectly. Come on Neil Walker – lift your game.

  5. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Thank you Flower for more interesting revelations – although you did not mention what effect Brockovich’s involvement had on the WA Alcoa thing, which I thought was going to be the point of your piece. You didn’t say, for example, that the 250 “affected and desperate victims” took Brockovich’s advice and have engaged Shine to take on the WA Dept of Environment. Take a look at the link provided above: “Supreme Court of Queensland dismissed the action with the judgment and penalty standing”. The point being made by the writer is that Erin Brockovich needs to lift her game if she wants to avoid the unintended promotion of shonks.
    And let’s leave God (the known unknown) out of it.

  6. hell.kelpie@gmail.com

    One for the sub (if such a thing exists at Crikey HQ) … ” The 2000 film starring Julia Roberts as the titular legal secretary who fought evil big business ..”

    Eponymous is the word you were looking for here, not titular. I’m pretty sure she really was a legal secretary. Perhaps it’s time Crikey bought a dictionary?

    Titular: http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0867560#m_en_gb0867560

    Eponymous: http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0270660#m_en_gb0270660

  7. Flower

    Hugh (Charlie) McColl – Perhaps Brockovich may need to lift her game since it is more than likely that she is completely unaware of Roche’s misconduct in 2003. Furthermore, I would hazard a guess that she was attracted to Shine lawyers because 85% of Shine personnel are female (thank God for that!) spread across the nation. However, since you are hellbent on discrediting Brockovich for no valid reason, permit me to give another fine example of our very own, home-grown ‘shonks’ whose disreputable conduct appears to be forgotten:

    Listed in the “Who’s who in Australia” is the Evatt family. In 1967 the Supreme Court ordered that Clive Evatt Junior be suspended from practice as a barrister for two years. The NSW Bar Association appealed the lenient decision to the High Court and the High Court ordered that Evatt’s name be removed from the Roll of Barristers for life.

    The High Court found that Evatt charged accident victims amounts which were excessive that were beyond recognised standards and unjustified as professional fees. “Evatt not only assisted solicitors in grave malpractice but did so knowing that the their malpractice would provide the source or part of his own excessive fees.”

    After 13 years and two failed applications for reinstatement to the Bar, Evatt’s third application was successful and he is now the legal and revered doyen of aggrieved defamation clients such as Keysar Trad, who, even before his appeal, faced legal costs exceeding $250,000.

    What I suggest you do now Mr McColl is to publicly expose all those legal firms who are engaging Clive Evatt Jnr to represent their defamation clients in court. ‘No’ you say? Why not? These firms of solicitors are consorting with a known ‘shonk’ (your words) are they not?

    And no Alcoa’s victims in WA have not taken on the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) in WA. Why do you ask since they have always got away with murder – literally! Vince Puccio, representing the Wagerup community received a written response from the DEC in 2009, which in part, stated that:

    “The Department has acknowledged that the way in which its predecessors responded to complaints against Alcoa between 2003 and 2005 was inadequate. The final view is that your complaint – that the manner in which the Department’s predecessor investigated and responded to complaints about Alcoa was inadequate, is sustained. ”

    The above excuse is the typical duckshoving by a department who lays blame on its ‘predecessors’ when its malpractices continue to be recorded in Hansard and as recent as a few weeks ago. In 2007, a bi-partisan parliamentary committee found that the DEC’s licensing documents were misleading and that “the industry regulation by DEC is grossly inadequate.”

    Last month, In determining the ‘petty cash’ fine of $45,000 for failing to stop dust affecting communities WA Prosecutors said Alcoa knew of the harm the dust could cause after a similar incident in 2002. Magistrate Barbara Lane said consideration needed to be given to deterrence because Alcoa had a record of contravening the Environmental Protection Act.

    The compelling evidence above augers well for the Wagerup community in the class action lodged in Pennsylvannia – Alcoa’s home-base – thank God for Erin Brockovich!

    Between 1987 and 2006, more than forty-seven Alcoa facilities had been cited for pollution violations by state and federal regulators in the US. In one instance when the EPA opposed Alcoa, they along with the Justice Department filed claims against the company and in the agreement, Alcoa consented to pay around $8.8 million in penalities and to clean up the Mississippi River Basin.

    What did you say the point of your silly and vacuous argument was Hugh (Charlie) McColl? Oh the same irrelevant point as Neil Walker’s – got you now!

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Actually Flower, I responded to the point you made which was that “Stephen Roche is not the alter ego of Brockovich (no question about that) and Shine is not the only legal firm Brockovich engages in her environmental crusades.” Forgive my ignorance about environmental crusades but when you suggest Brockovich engaged Shine you didn’t mean she used them as lawyers? On the contrary you meant they engaged her (and her international reputation) for a fee to support their advertising campaign. When you wrote about the WA matter and made special note of “enter Brockovich” I looked for some explanation of exactly how Brockovich had entered that fray and what she had done. There was nothing except “Thank God for Erin Brockovich!” Did she invoke Mary McKillop or something more down to earth?
    Clearly you are very impressed with Brockovich’s work and will not tolerate anything looking like criticism of her. Walker’s piece, just like your own observations about the WA alumina industry, the government department and the Evatt matter, exposed something that is of value to all citizens, including celebrities who risk their hard-won reputations making a living. I reckon Ms Brockovich would appreciate the heads-up.

  9. Flower

    Hugh (Charlie) McColl – poppy cock!

    1. Erin Brockovich is President of Brockovich Research & Consulting

    2. Erin Brockovich agreed to review the Wagerup case after *personally* receiving an email from an affected Yarloop resident in WA

    3. Through law firm Masry and Vititoe and Girardi and Keese in the US (who she also works for as a consultant), Shine Lawyers in Australia agreed to take up the Wagerup case to see whether a class action was feasible. It was!

    Should you have additional difficulties enhancing your ‘misconduct’ conspiracy, please consult with Monsieur Poirot or channel Sherlock Holmes – I’m a busy woman!

  10. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Get off your high horse Flower. If you had included points 2 and 3 in your earlier posts then the connection between Brockovich and the WA matter would have been established. Too busy to bother I s’pose.