The youngest child of Frank and Betty Jo Pattee (he was an industrial engineer, she was a journalist), Erin Brockovich grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. After graduating from Lawrence High School in 1978, Erin spent one year at Kansas State University, then transferred to a business college in Dallas, Texas, where she earned her Associates in Applied Arts degree.
In 1981, Erin took a job as a management trainee for K-Mart in Orange, California. She left after a few months to take a job at Fluor Engineers and Constructors to work and study to become an electrical design engineer. While working at this job, she tried her luck in the beauty pageant world. Although she met with almost immediate success, winning the title of Miss Pacific Coast she dropped off the circuit the following year and married restaurant manager Shawn Brown.
Shawn and Erin moved back to Kansas where over the course of four years Erin gave birth to her two older children, Matthew and Katie Brown and eventually settled in Reno, Nevada. In 1987, she and Shawn divorced. Now a single mom with two children to support, Erin took a job as a secretary at E.F. Hutton, a Reno brokerage. There she met stockbroker Steven Brockovich, whom she married in 1989.
Though it produced her youngest child, daughter Elizabeth, Erin’s marriage to Steven Brockovich ended. They were divorced in 1990, and again Erin was forced to fend for herself, this time with three children to provide for.
After being seriously injured in a traffic accident in Reno, Erin moved back to Southern California with her children. In 1991, she hired the law firm of Masry and Vititoe to handle her car accident case. Although she received $17,000 in settlement money, it did not begin to cover her debts. Unable to find work, she soon begged Masry and Vititoe to hire her as a $1,200.00 a month file clerk. It was not long after she started to work at the law firm that some medical records she found in a file on a pro bono real estate case piqued her curiosity. After getting permission from the firm’s principal, Ed Masry, she began to look into the matter.
Erin’s solo investigation eventually established that the health of countless people who lived in and around Hinkley, California in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s had been devastated by exposure to toxic Chromium 6. The Chromium 6 had leaked into the groundwater from the nearby Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Compressor Station. In 1996, as a result of the largest direct action lawsuit of it’s kind, spearheaded by Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry, the giant utility was ordered to make the largest legal settlement in U.S. history, paying out some $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents.
The story of Erin’s investigation, legal triumph and personal issues were dramatized in the hit movie Erin Brockovich. Released in March 2000 by Universal Studios, it starred JULIA ROBERTS as Erin and ALBERT FINNEY as Edward Masry.
No longer a file clerk, Erin now serves as director of environmental research at Masry and Vititoe, where she is currently involved in other major environmental lawsuits that she put together.