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VW Emissions Scandal Now Fueling Class-Action Lawsuits

Words by Leon Kaye

The Volkswagen emissions scandal has taken a life of its own. Watch for Volkswagen to dominate news headlines for a long time, now that the U.S. Congress has become involved.

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.

A bevy of lawsuits are already underway. Hagens Berman, a litigation firm based in Seattle, claims it has received thousands of inquiries over Volkswagen’s admission that the company installed software that allowed as many as 11 million of its diesel-powered automobiles skirt U.S. federal emissions rules. The firm was among the first plaintiffs to file a lawsuit in the U.S. with a Sept. 18 submission in California; that filing was followed in the same court three days later with another lawsuit, which includes class representatives from at least 22 states.

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 headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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