Judge hits Diesel Brothers with $848,000 in penalties for air pollution violations
SALT LAKE CITY — The Diesel Brothers reality TV stars must pay $848,000 for modifying, marketing and selling pickup trucks with emission control defeat devices installed, a judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby also issued a permanent injunction barring the Diesel Brothers from further violations, which he said stemmed from unlawful operations that still are economically enriching the defendants.
Those benefits continue, Shelby said in his ruling issued late Friday, “extending well beyond the profits from these prohibited activities to defendants’ status as television and social media celebrities, the reputation and notoriety of their brands, and the economic leverage they have used to accumulate assets and start new businesses.”
The ruling detailed about 400 violations in which the defendants bypassed systems designed to reduce emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from diesel vehicles.
Most of the $848,000 must be paid to the U.S. Treasury, according to Clean Air Act guidelines that allow citizens to file civil enforcement actions against polluters. But Shelby further ruled that $90,000 will go to the Davis County Tampered Diesel Truck Restoration Program.
The ruling is a victory for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which sued the Diesel Brothers after seeing modified trucks spewing black smoke on the Wood Cross-based truck enthusiasts’ Discovery Channel show, now in its sixth season.
“Illegally stripped down and modified diesel trucks have no place on our roadways,” Dr. Brian Moench, president of the doctors’ group, said Monday afternoon in a press release. “Any business that not only profits from doing that, but glorifies the plumes of pollution that their handiwork produces, should be held accountable, and that’s what this ruling does.”
Physicians’ attorney Reed Zars on Monday applauded the “lifetime ban” on further emissions violations. He also noted the judge’s ruling ordered that none of the $848,000 “can be avoided or charged in bankruptcy.”
Cole Cannon, the Diesel Brothers’ attorney, said it is too soon to know whether they will appeal the ruling.
“What’s disappointing is that the parties were unable to resolve this through a private settlement, which would have resulted in a lot more of a restorative effort in Utah,” Cannon said. “This order only has approximately 10% of the money staying in Utah. The other gets sent to Washington, D.C., and we all know how useful that’s going to be.”
In court documents leading up to the decision, the doctors’ group had sought more than $1 million in penalties and argued that the law allowed sanctions up to $4.4 million.
But Shelby gave the Diesel Brothers credit for various mitigating factors, such as that they earned only about $1,500 direct profit per truck of the 50 vehicles sold or given away in online sweepstakes during the five-year period addressed in the suit.
While David Sparks, owner of the defendant companies involved and the main star of the TV show, added a disclaimer on the program saying they did not support illegal truck modifications, the judge said the defendants overall “produced minimal evidence of good faith efforts” to comply with the law.
Shelby said the Diesel Brothers have not restored or offered to restore any of the tampered trucks they gave away in sweepstakes and that two trucks with defeat devices were sold even after the judge imposed a preliminary injunction.
The defendants can afford to pay the penalties, Shelby added, outlining in his ruling the assets of Sparks, know as “Heavy D” on the show, and his companies.
Sparks has become a celebrity with millions of social media followers and his income has “substantially increased” to an average of $300,000 annually in the last three years, the judge said.
Sparks received $482,597 in that period from Discovery Channel alone, according to the ruling.
The Sparks Motors truck dealership doubled its assets from 2016 to 2018 and at the end of that period had a helicopter and two planes.
Shelby largely discounted one key defense the Diesel Brothers offered regarding the magnitude of the penalties sought, that many of the defeat parts and trucks they sold ended up outside Utah.
“Defendants’ violations are no less serious simply because they exported their violations to other parts of the country,” Shelby wrote. “The violations were numerous, occurred over a long period of time, significantly increased the toxic pollutants emitted by diesel trucks, and pose a serious risk to human health. At bottom, the tampered trucks and the defeat parts continue to endanger human health, regardless of where they are.”
The judge said the doctors’ group demonstrated that the Diesel Brothers caused irreparable injury by increasing the amounts of toxic pollutants breathed by Northern Utah residents and that monetary damages can’t compensate for injuries suffered.
Seven Utah counties repeatedly have not met federal air pollution standards, especially on the Wasatch Front. The doctors’ groups says ozone and fine-particulate pollution emitted by diesel engines cause various health problems including cancer.
Sparks in the owner of Diesel Brothers affiliated companies including B&W Motors, doing business as Sparks Motors in Woods Cross, and Diesel Power Gear, the online merchandizing arm. Those entities also are defendants in the suit.
Other individual defendants are Diesel Brothers stars Joshua Stuart, “Redbeard”; and Keaton Hoskins, “The Muscle.”
Cannon said he was “shocked” that Shelby assessed $86,100 in penalties against Hoskins for selling two tampered trucks, only one of which he worked on.
“I think for a regular truck owner this would be pretty alarming to you,” he said.
Shelby also awarded litigation costs and attorneys’ fees to the doctors’ group, which will be determined in future hearings.