With a little over a year before the contentious 2016 presidential and congressional elections, Volkswagen’s misdeeds will foment plenty of grandstanding for politicians looking to profit off the “defeat device” fiasco. News clips of senators angrily grilling VW executives will add to the brand’s immolation and increased attention from consumers just when last month’s revelations have faded from memory.
Even more worrisome for the world’s largest automaker, however, is the flood of class-action lawsuits with which the company will long struggle. Automobile manufacturers have had to deal with such litigation for years, whether suits are filed due to defective parts or flaws in a car’s design or assembly. In turn, they retain the top legal minds in the country, and the hundreds of dollars per hour they spend fighting off litigation is accepted as preventive medicine. But as personal injury lawyer Spencer Aronfeld has pointed out, Volkswagen’s legal teams will have to confront a far more daunting challenge:
“What has many consumer claims lawyers excited is that unlike most cases involving automotive product defects, the evidence here points to a knowing and calculated commission of a fraud, rather than a simple mistake. Whenever a company intentionally commits a tortious act, such as misleading or manipulating data, they are potentially subject to punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant not just to compensate a victim, but rather to punish the wrongdoer, and awards can range to many times the amount of actual compensatory damages," Aronfeld said.
California, in fact, will be ground zero for litigation filed against Volkswagen. The legal maneuvering has already begun: The class action firm Keller Rohrback has already filed for a restraining order against Volkswagen’s U.S. division, asking the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to bar the company from sending any information to parties involved in a class action lawsuit filed in that court. Plenty of paperwork will be flying in this courthouse's offices for months, if not years.
The Central District, actually located in Southern California, is home to 19 million residents — and, according to attorney Alison Frankel, is home to many owners of the diesel-powered automobiles in which the emissions-cheating software were installed. California is also the location of Volkswagen’s U.S. emissions-testing evaluation center, and investigators from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) had a hand in revealing the manipulated emissions levels from VW and Audi diesel cars.
Meanwhile, other lawsuits have been filed nationwide, from Georgia to Texas to Wisconsin. As many as 40 different class action lawsuits have been filed in federal courts across the country, and whether they become consolidated or not, Volkswagen will face mounting costs in addition to a stained image from which it will take years to recover. Even litigators not involved in VW lawsuits, including the 40-year-old litigation firm Lieff Cabraser, are discussing the VW saga.
Not that anyone is really feeling sorry for Volkswagen. The sentiment of many VW and Audi diesel car owners, 55,000 of whom are in California, was summed up by a Sonoma County attorney who has also filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen U.S. and the Southern California dealership from which she purchased her 2010 Jetta SportWagen: “Every time I get in it, I cringe.”
Image credit: OXS via Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.