It comes as little surprise a federal judge selected noted Seattle lawyer Steve Berman last week, over dozens of others, to co-lead a high-profile class-action lawsuit against General Motors.
From Exxon Mobil to Jack In The Box to the entire tobacco industry, Berman has been at the forefront of some of the biggest consumer, investor and employee cases over the last few decades. Most recently, he led the effort to score a $1.6 billion settlement against Toyota for covering up safety problems.
What drives the avowed consumer activist? Berman said it stems from an idealism spawned in the 1960s.
“Kids older than me were protesting and blowing up buildings. I really felt the need to help make a change, but I thought the better way to do it was get in the system and work within the system to make change.”
After law school, Berman landed at a Seattle firm and ended up on the case he said would forever change his life.
He was assigned a case involving the infamous Washington Public Power Supply System. The nuclear power partnership of public utilities from across the state would ultimately default on over $2 billion in bonds issued to finance the project. It was the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history, leaving investors big and small in the lurch.
“The bonds were basically sold to widows and orphans as safe, and I got in on their side and just got bit by the bug of fighting for the underdog,” said Berman.
He subsequently began working to develop a small class-action practice in the defense firm. But everything changed in 1993 when a family came into his office asking to represent them in a case against Jack In The Box.
Their child had been sickened in the famous E. Coli outbreak that killed four and permanently injured nearly 200 others. The child had lost a kidney and was seriously ill.
Berman said he wanted to take the case, but the firm went for a bigger payday instead.
“I told the law firm that’s why I got into law,” he said. “I had a child the same age, so it really struck home. They said, ‘No, we’d rather get retained by one of the insurance companies for the meat suppliers, so that’s when I left.”
Determined to focus on plaintiff-cases, Berman partnered with several other attorneys to form Hagens Berman, which would become one of the most powerful firms in the country. Business has been booming ever since.
“There seems to be no end to corporate wrongdoing,” he said.
Berman said there have been plenty of highlights among the dozens of cases he’s handled over the years. Among them, leading the effort against the tobacco industry on behalf of over a dozen states that netted the biggest settlement in world history.
He helped investors swindled by financier Bernard Madoff win a $218 million settlement against JPMorgan Chase Bank, and won massive settlements against pharmaceutical companies for price-fixing and anti-trust activities.
In the process, he’s made plenty of money as the firm has grown to nine cities across the United States. But he said just as when he first started, it’s his idealism and emotional connection to the cases that still drive him.
“I wasn’t going to get involved in Toyota until my former legal secretary called me and told me she’d taken a $4,000 hit on the sale of her Toyota, and it really hurt her and her family. They could not afford that. That really galvanized me into action,” he said. “In the Exxon case, a fisherman called me from Alaska and talked about how devastating the closure of Prince William Sound was and that galvanized me into action.”
He’s just as proud of the smaller cases that don’t get widespread attention. Berman said one of his favorites is a case he brought against grass growers in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, who would burn their fields every fall, polluting the air and hurting people with respiratory problems.
“It was hurting my client, who had Cystic Fibrosis, a 13- year-old girl,” he says. “She and others like her had to leave the area for a month, so I brought that case and stopped that practice. It’s not a case most people have heard of, but I’m very proud of that.”
The cases can be enormously difficult and expensive. Despite the possibility of a big payday, Berman said the firm often takes a gamble on those he feels most strongly about.
“In Toyota, we spent $26 million of our own money on experts, and at the time, NASA had come out and said there was nothing wrong with the cars,” he said. “We had maybe 30 to 40 people working on the case against probably a couple hundred defense lawyers, so these are not easy battles to bring.”
It means plenty of sleepless nights and frequent travel. But if he’s in town, Berman insists on making it home for dinner every night with his wife and three kids. He also finds time to cycle competitively and, “Get yelled at by a bunch of kids,” refereeing youth soccer on weekends.
After 34 years, Berman could easily retire but he said he still has plenty of fight left in him.
“I love what I’m doing and I love the challenge. I think I have talents that are useful to help clients, and I’m still sharp and I want to keep in the game,” he said.
That game includes the GM case, which he says could be as significant and challenging as any of the cases he’s ever tackled.
Since February 2014, GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles over problems with the ignition switch, and has since recalled millions more with other possible defects.
“It’s probably the most serious coverup of automobile defects in the automotive industry in the United States,” he said.
When Berman does eventually hang it up, he said he hopes his legacy will inspire other lawyers to follow in his footsteps.
“I think most lawyers want a safe pass, and they go work for big law firms and work for corporations. Not enough young people, in my view, want to do plaintiffs work.”
He has inspired at least one young person. One of his sons had been studying pre-med, but has now set his sights on the legal field after taking an international law class.
“It turns out, one of the key cases they studied was one of my cases.” He laughed, “He became fascinated by it and got the bug.”