Edward L. Masry only intended to do a favor for a friend when he found himself hip deep in alligators back in 1993. What started out as a relatively straightforward real estate negotiation on behalf of a resident of Hinkley, Calif., turned into a case of toxic contamination of groundwater so large that it affected more than 600 people and resulted in a $330 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Masry spent about $10 million on the case and nearly went broke before calling in two larger law firms to partner in the lawsuit. Ultimately, the battle he waged along with his researcher, Erin Brockovich, against Pacific Gas & Electric became the subject of a major motion picture and Masry became a household name among fans of the film. During his 40-year career, Masry has worked on first-degree murder trials, liability suits and stock fraud cases. In the early 1990s, he was a defense lawyer in a $1.5 billion money-laundering case involving businesses in L.A.’s downtown jewelry district known as Operation Polar Cap. The 12 attorneys who work at Westlake Village-based Masry & Vititoe still handle a diverse caseload. But with the attention generated by the PG & E; case, the firm has also developed a reputation as a specialist in pollution issues. Masry is currently representing a group of environmentalists in a suit against oil companies. And he is also defending Save Open Space against a lawsuit filed by Washington Mutual Inc., developer of the huge Ahmanson Ranch housing project. Now, concerned that developers are burying the Conejo Valley in asphalt, Masry is aiming for a seat on the Thousand Oaks City Council. Question: How has the PG & E; case changed your practice? Answer: We are currently handling maybe a total of 100 cases. Before, we had many more cases. They were not of the magnitude that we have now. Of the top 16 largest law firms in California, we are engaged in litigation against 15 of them. So we go up against the biggest law firms in the state continually. And for a firm of our size, that’s unusual. And we regularly beat the hell out of them, so I’m very proud. Q: What are some of the cases you are handling now? A: We have the biggest toxic case in California. We are representing a nonprofit corporation called Communities for a Better Environment and Nicole McAdam, an environmental activist, against the 14 largest oil companies in California, to force them to clean up the water and pay penalties for violating Proposition 65. The oil companies have polluted drinking water, and the object of our lawsuit is to force them to clean up the aquifers. We represent Pamela and Tommy Lee in litigation that involves copyright infringement and unfair trade practices. They filed against distributors we believe are illegally marketing videos in which they’re portrayed. Q: You also recently took on a case defending the right of Save Open Space, which is fighting the Ahmanson Ranch development, to use www.ahmanson.org and similar domain names. Why did you take on that case? A: Because I felt, No. 1, Washington Mutual was wrong, and No. 2, they were using bullying tactics against a group of sincere, hard-working environmentalists who were trying to save a really wonderful area of California which we can never replace. So when Washington Mutual threatened to sue them in typical saber-rattling fashion, we jumped in. Q: How did you first get involved in the lawsuit against PG & E; in Hinkley? A: My partner Jimmy Vititoe’s wife, Karen, called me and said there’s a woman up in Barstow who was her sister’s best friend and was having problems with the sale of her home. Pacific Gas had bought out everybody but her, and she had five acres in the middle of what ended up being a toxic plume, and they had actually offered her more than what her property was worth. But she really didn’t want to move and so she asked me if I would try to obtain more money for her. I had no intention of getting involved in a property litigation matter in Hinkley. The case became a kind of quicksand, getting bigger and bigger. My wife and I kept pouring more and more money into it until, in effect, it exhausted our life savings. We put trust deeds on our home and we actually sold our retirement home in Rancho Mirage to keep the case going. Q: Did the PG & E; case turn you into an avid environmentalist or did you start out feeling that way? A: I’d say I was a warm environmentalist. And I’d say that I’m a hot environmentalist now, but I don’t think I’m avid. I don’t necessarily think that saving the “koochee fly” is worth taking thousands of acres away or depriving an owner of the use of property without compensation. Q: What was your reaction when the movie “Erin Brockovich” was first proposed? A: I was very reluctant to put this in the hands of Hollywood, but I really trusted (producers) Jersey Films and I really liked (Jersey’s executive producer) Michael Shamberg. So I signed. Q: How did you feel about the way the movie turned out? A: My wife and I discussed in depth whether or not we wanted it revealed that we had risked everything on a case. People might look at that and say, “Look at that stupid lawyer. How could you be so dumb at 60 years old to risk your life savings on a case?” So I was concerned about that impression. But at the same time, I was also concerned that the public understand what contingency fee lawyers go through all the time. We risk our assets, our health, our future on a case, and we may lose. And if we had lost, I would have nothing after 60 years of hard work. So we decided to tell it the way it was in the hope that this would help teach the people who watch the movie the importance of contingency fee lawyers. Because without a contingency fee lawyer, believe me, PG & E; would never have happened. Q: The film portrayed Erin Brockovich as the real driver behind the case. How instrumental was she? A: I probably wouldn’t have gotten as heavily involved in the case without Erin. I do know that Erin laid the foundation for the case. Tom (Girardi of Girardi and Keese) and Walter (Lack of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack) put up the walls. Q: How realistic is it to think that your firm or others could give cases like PG & E; the same degree of attention it took to win that settlement? A: The PG & E; case would have been lost without the law firms of Tom and Walter coming on board, because PG & E; exhausted me. I’d been in it for approximately two years. I couldn’t go no more. They could throw so many attorneys and experts at you. Motions, every day there was another wheelbarrow full. I had a 42-person law office when I started PG & E; and I would say that within a very few months I had a minimum of 25 of my employees basically full-time on the case and (the firm) not pulling in any income. So the income dropped like a rock and the expenses accelerated like a rocket. Q: What lesson did you learn from PG & E;? A: It seems like the bigger they are, the stupider they are. If they had in 1963 told the neighbors what was going on, none of this would have happened. They would have cleaned it up, everyone would have been happy, gone on with life. Instead of doing that, they hid it. Q: Why do you think they reacted that way? A: To save money. They wanted the bottom line. They were trying to get the stock up. Q: Why did you decide to run for Thousand Oaks City Council? A: We moved to the Valley in the ’40s. We had a 20-acre ranch in Van Nuys, and developers came in and destroyed (Van Nuys). You have no idea how beautiful it was. Look at it now. We moved out here (to the Thousand Oaks area) four years ago, and I saw the same thing starting to happen. We’ve got a majority of the Thousand Oaks City Council controlled by developers. They got most of their money from developers. They vote for the developers. They waive standards. I just decided I’ve had enough. I have seven grandkids who are all living in this area. I want them to have the open space, to be able to look at horses and see animals instead of nothing but asphalt.
LAW—The hit film ‘Erin Brockovich’ has helped put attorney Ed Masry front and center in environmental law