Image:Erin Brockovich
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
Erin Brockovich, the legal crusader whose fame was spread by the Julia Roberts film about her life, is suing some 30 California hospitals and nursing homes for allegedly overbilling Medicare.
updated 10/19/2006 6:31:51 PM ET 2006-10-19T22:31:51

Erin Brockovich, the legal crusader whose fame was spread by the Julia Roberts film about her life, is suing some 30 California hospitals and nursing homes for allegedly overbilling Medicare.

The lawsuits say the facilities improperly billed Medicare millions of dollars to pay for follow-up treatment of patients who were the victims of neglect or medical mistakes, although they list no specific examples of abuse.

“They’re just going in and filing lawsuits with no evidence that anybody’s been harmed, no patients they can point to. It’s a fishing expedition,” California Hospital Association spokeswoman Jan Emerson said Thursday. “They’re doing it all over the country.”

A message left for Brockovich’s assistant on Thursday was not immediately returned.

A spokesman for one of the law firms handling the suits said it is typical for specific instances of wrongdoing to be spelled out later when lawyers for both sides exchange documents during a period of time known as “discovery.”

Brockovich, 46, gained fame with the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” which told how, as a legal assistant to attorney Ed Masry, she helped win a $333-million settlement on behalf of residents of the Mojave Desert town of Hinckley who said Pacific Gas & Electric tanks leaked cancer-causing chemicals into their groundwater.

Her fame may help in the new cases, University of San Diego law school professor Shaun Martin said.

“You latch onto Erin Brockovich if nothing else than because you want to have a higher profile,” he told the Fresno Bee. “The judge is less likely then to dismiss a lawsuit, and you want a jury to be star-struck.”

The lawsuits include one filed in Fresno County Superior Court against Community Medical Centers, which runs Fresno’s University Medical Center.

A call to Community Medical Centers seeking comment was not immediately returned Thursday.

The suits were filed under federal law that allows private citizens to sue on the government’s behalf and collect a portion of any money awarded.

They are being pursued by Los Angeles-based Girardi & Keese along with Wilkes & McHugh, a Tampa, Fla.-based law firm that specializes in cases involving neglect or abuse of the elderly at nursing homes or hospitals.

A call to attorney Thomas Girardi seeking comment Thursday was not immediately returned.

Ken Connor, a Leesburg, Va., attorney serving as a spokesman for Wilkes & McHugh, said the firm filed hundreds of similar lawsuits against hospitals in other states on behalf of plaintiffs other than Brockovich.

He did not know how Brockovich came to be the plaintiff in California, but added that she “has been a consumer advocate.”

Noting that the lawsuits being filed are “general in nature,” Connor added that specific accusations of wrongdoing are often raised later in the legal process.

“Typically, those specifics all wind up being elucidated during discovery,” he said.

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