Corporate Crime Silkwood Norma Rae a Civil Action Erin Brokovich

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If you're like most, corporate crime seems like a vague concept. It certainly doesn't compare with the kind of violence we see on the average city street every day: gang activity, murder and rape. At least not on the surface.

If you're like most, your notion of corporate crime is woefully wrong. Remember movies like A Civil Action, Silkwood, Norma Rae and Erin Brokovich? The movie world plucked very real corporate misdeeds to create these blockbuster filems.

While a portion of corporate crime involves swindling, fraud and the likes of the Enron and mortgage banking ilk, corporate crime ALSO entails violence, inhumanity of man unto man and carnage of the most base kind.

Cases like that of Karen Silkwood or Erin Brokovich are more insidious as they don't come to light for years, generally after they've run roughshod over groups of people and even whole townships. One person doesn't get knocked in the head by a robber. In corporate crime, an entire group of employees or even a town are sacrificed in the name of greed.

And that's the common denominator: greed. When you get to the origin of the story of how any one of the countless cases of corporate crime started, you'll find that greed was at the core.

You may think you can't name a case of corporate crime. Let me throw some names out at you. (Some real, some based on a compilation of famous cases.)

Erin Brokovich, the 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts as an unemployed single mom who ultimately takes on a California power company accused of polluting the city's water supply.
On her Web site,, Brokovich talks about the many people in Hinkley, CA who developed health issues in the 60s, 70s and 80s because Chromium had leaked into the groundwater from Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Compressor Station. Brokovich's tenacious efforts to hold a corporate criminal's feet to the fire resulted in the largest direct action lawsuit of its kind. Ultimately, the utility company paid $333 million in damages to the people it injured.

Norma Rae (1979). The tale starring Sally Field is based loosely on Crystal Lee Sutton and her work at J.P. Stevens in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sutton was harassed, berated, harassed, you name it as she tried to help union organizers unite the workers in an effort to combat unsafe working conditions. In the movie, Norma Rae/Sally Field was fired by the company for copying down a company letter on a bulletin board. The company called the act insubordination. In 1977, a court ordered her to be reinstated. She was awarded $13,436. And while the movie won an award for Sally Field, it won absolutely nothing for Crystal Lee. Unlike the movie, the real life corporate tale didn't have a good ending. Crystal Lee Sutton lost jobs, home and husband for her efforts. (She's since rebuilt her life.) Whoever says corporate crime doesn't have a cost to the average person, hasn't been paying attention to the news much over the years.

Silkwood (1983), is based on the life of Karen Silkwood, an employee of the Cimarron River nuclear facility in Crescent, Oklahoma, , played by Meryl Streep in the movie. The movie is regarded as being a fairly accurate account of Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant. She was contaminated with plutonium, purposefully, and tortured then possibly murdered to stop her from speaking to a reporter about seriously dangerous practices at the Kerr-McGee plant.

After multiple abuses, Silkwood was unable to remain quiet any longer. She drove her Honda to Oklahoma. Her plan was to turn over a folder full of alleged health and safety violations at the plant to a friend, Drew Stephens, a New York Times reporter and national union representative. (Part of the mental torture Silkwood endured was the result of her gathering of this information.) On the way to meet the reporter, Silkwood's vehicle went off the road, skidded for a hundred yards, hit a guardrail, then plunged off an embankment. Silkwood was killed in the crash, and the folder was never found.

A Civil Action (1998) starred John Travolta as attorney Jan Schlictmann who comes to represent a group of families whose children have contracted leukemia at an alarming rate. The case traces to a leather production company that happens to be the main employer in the area. The plot revolves around illegal chemical substance dumping.

Eventually, investigators would report that the 28 leukemia cases diagnosed in Woburn, Massachusetts, between 1964 and the mid-1980s were four times more than should be expected for a community of its size. That's the real life case. In the movie version, Travolta's firm sues to make the companies responsible to decontaminate the affected areas, as well as compensate the families who lost children.

The film was based on a true story that took place in Woburn, a lower- to middle-class community. The real tale differs from the movie in that the movie seriously oversimplifies the clash of the titans in this case. Ultimately the Environmental Protection Agency was involved, and people were convicted of criminal misdeeds in the real case.

As with the other cases of exposed corporate crimes, the Woburn case came to light because of ONE PERSON. In this case it was Anne Anderson, regarded by almost everyone as a typical, hysterical mom whose child became ill. But as with Karen Silkwood and Erin Brokovich, she couldn't be scared or silenced by a corporation or its battalion of lawyers.

So, when you think of corporate crime, and you think it is victimless, think again. But there is an upside. In many of these corporate crime cases, you'll find a David, an average man or woman, taking on a corporate giantand winning.


If you want to follow up on other cases and the steps to make the law enforcement community give more credence to corporate crimes, a few Web sites offer good information:

Site: details some of the top corporate crimes of recent times and does a good job of categorizing the major misdeeds of corporations.


Sponsored by The Center for Corporate Policy does a good job explaining corporate crime, as well giving news on how it tries to strengthen the legal system's recognition and prosecution efforts in this field.

More about this author: Kim Remesch

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