When the scandal involving Volkswagen’s self-acknowledged cheating on emissions tests rocked the auto industry and shocked consumer advocates in 2015, Seattle lawyer Steve Berman had to wonder if the German manufacturer was the only one trying to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes.
“I did a deep-dive in Europe and uncovered studies there that [indicated] there was widespread cheating,” he says. “I then thought to myself, ‘If the German companies—who many think are the best engineers—have to cheat, how is it the U.S. companies are clean?’”
So his firm, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, decided to do some investigating of its own. “I have a team of scientists 24/7 testing cars,” Berman says. “We bought and tested GM cars over a four-month period.”
Their testing led to a class-action lawsuit against GM, filed by Berman’s firm in May, involving heavy-duty pickups sold from 2011 to 2016. It accuses the car manufacturer of using software to program the diesel versions of the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and the GMC Sierra 2500HD to perform better under conditions typical during emissions testing, but not during other types of driving.
According to Berman, the alleged emission-test evasion is “very similar” to that used by Volkswagen: “The car senses when it’s not in a testing environment and turns off or turns down emission controls.”
He is also involved in emission-test suits involving the Chevrolet Cruze, Mercedes-Benz BlueTEC, FCA Ram 1500 pickup and Ram 2500/3500 pickups, and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Berman is a heavy-hitter in the world of class actions. He was appointed as co-lead attorney for the consumer economic-loss class action in the Toyota unintended-acceleration case. That case resulted in a $1.6 billion settlement in 2012. And he was special assistant attorney general in the case against Big Tobacco, in which he represented 13 states. That one ended in the biggest settlement in U.S. history: $206 billion in 1998.
GM strongly denied the accusations in a May New York Times article.
“We want the cars fixed, a fraud premium paid or a complete buyback if they can’t be fixed,” says Berman, dubbed “the one-man EPA” around his office. “Clean air is important to us all, and we can’t allow this type of pollution to go unchecked. With Trump in office and an industry lackey as head of the EPA, I consider myself the de facto chief of holding the car companies’ feet to the fire.”