Ed Masry, 73; Attorney Won Major Settlement From PG&E;, Sat on Thousand Oaks Council
Ed Masry, the flamboyant, crusading environmental lawyer portrayed by actor Albert Finney in the movie “Erin Brockovich,” which was based on Masry’s landmark $333-million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for groundwater contamination in California’s high desert, has died. He was 73.
Masry died Monday night at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks of complications of diabetes. He had been undergoing kidney dialysis for several years and had his right leg amputated above the knee in September.
Masry had been repeatedly hospitalized since March. On Nov. 30, he resigned his seat on the Thousand Oaks City Council, on which he had served for five years, because of ill health. He previously survived colon cancer, a heart attack and bypass surgery.
The lawyer sprang to national prominence when the 2000 motion picture chronicled his remarkable legal achievement along with that of his legal assistant, Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards -- best picture, director (Steven Soderbergh), actor (Finney), actress and screenplay, and Roberts won the Oscar for best actress. Masry and Brockovich watched Roberts accept her statue at the ceremonies at the Shrine Auditorium.
The brash New Jersey-born lawyer and the brassy twice-divorced mother, who wangled a job as his file clerk and later became his legal assistant, were a perfect match. Together they waged the class-action suit on behalf of 648 residents of Hinkley, Calif., near Barstow, who alleged that PG&E; tanks had contaminated their water supply and caused them to get cancer and other illnesses.
The film depicted some of the fierce arguments between Masry and Brockovich about the financial ability of Masry’s small law firm to take on such a complex case. The lawyer and the clerk were known for their loud arguments peppered with sexual epithets and four-letter words.
“No one has called me more names than Erin Brockovich, and I’ve called her everything in the book,” Masry told The Times in 2001, “but we love each other.”
Masry was considering retirement when Brockovich found suspicious medical records of residents of Hinkley among the real estate files in his office. She drove to the high desert to question the residents and persuaded Masry to take on their case.
In 1997, the firm was one of three that collectively won the $333-million settlement from PG&E;, the world’s largest publicly owned utility. Nearly bankrupted by the lengthy litigation, Masry’s San Fernando Valley firm received a check for about $40 million. The firm moved to Westlake Village, and Masry was named Consumer Advocate of the Year by the Consumer Attorneys of California.
After the film came out, Masry was bombarded with interview requests from national media outlets and was invited to appear, along with 22 other high-profile lawyers, on the reality television show “Power of Attorney.” Interviewed about the program on NBC’s “Today Show,” Masry said he participated because “I think it’s important that the people in the United States understand the role we lawyers play in society.”
Closer to home, Masry parlayed the fame into an election victory to the Thousand Oaks City Council. But his often vitriolic courtroom rhetoric, delivered in council discussions on topics such as flood control basins, sometimes irked local officials. Thousand Oaks land-use attorney Chuck Cohen, for example, once proclaimed at a council session, “Mr. Masry ... you’re no Albert Finney.”
Others defended Masry’s brutal frankness as his way of getting things done.
“Ed sees his client as everybody outside of City Hall,” former Thousand Oaks Planning Commission Chairman Dave Anderson told The Times in 2001. “He’s representing those hundreds of thousands the only way he knows how, and that’s as if it were in a courtroom.”
Thousand Oaks Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Pena, who informed the council of Masry’s death, ordered city flags lowered to half staff. Masry served as mayor for one of his five years on the council.
A lifelong environmentalist, Masry fought development in the Conejo Valley, where he moved in 1996 to escape crowding in the San Fernando Valley. In recent years he was chairman of Save the World Air Inc., a for-profit firm that provides products designed to reduce harmful emissions from internal-combustion engines.
Masry blamed his instant fame for some unwanted publicity. Kissandra Cohen, a lawyer in his firm, sued him for wrongful termination and sexual harassment. The same day that civil suit was filed, Brockovich’s former husband and her ex-boyfriend were arrested on suspicion of trying to extort $310,000 from Brockovich and Masry during a videotaped law office sting. The charges against them were later dropped, but their attorney was disbarred and convicted of conspiracy and extortion.
In 2002, a Van Nuys civil jury cleared Masry in Cohen’s case, but ordered him to pay her one year’s salary, $120,000, for slanderous remarks he made about her in a television interview. Masry said he fired her for misrepresenting her academic credentials and for poor work performance.
Born Edward Louis Masry to immigrant parents in Paterson, N.J., on July 29, 1932, he moved to Southern California with his family when he was 8, settling first in Venice and then in Van Nuys. He attended what was then known as Valley Junior College as well as UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and USC, and served in the Army in France before earning his law degree from Loyola University of Los Angeles in 1960.
Masry set up his private practice in Los Angeles in 1961, representing any client he could get, including, as he once told The Times, “strippers, prostitutes and pimps.” A football fan, he became an agent for several National Football League players, including Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen of the Los Angeles Rams. Other clients have included “Baywatch” star Pamela Lee and the band Steppenwolf.
Intrigued with constitutional law, Masry represented televangelist Gene Scott and the religious group Morningland. In 1978, he was charged by the California attorney general’s office, along with Morningland and its founder, Donato Sperato, with attempting to bribe then-Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally. The long and tangled litigation ended with no convictions.
In 1982, Masry joined lawyer James Vititoe to set up the Masry and Vititoe firm. By the early 1990s, Masry had begun concentrating on cases involving injuries caused by toxic material. He hired Brockovich in 1992.
Masry is survived by his second wife, Joette, whom he married in 1992; three children from his earlier marriage, Louanna Masry-Weeks, Louis Masry and Nicole Masry-McAdam; two stepchildren, Christopher Levinson and Timothy Engelhart; and 10 grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service will be held Jan. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theatre.
Times staff writers Gregory W. Griggs and Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.