In Depth

Volkswagen emission scandal: largest legal case in German history begins

More than 400,000 customers seeking compensation from the carmaker

The first mass lawsuit in Germany relating to the Volkswagen emissions scandal is under way in what is being billed as the largest legal claim in the country’s history.

According to Autocar, more than 400,000 customers have teamed up in a bid to claim compensation. And a further 100,000 are said to be pursuing legal action independently. 

The claimants must prove that they were either “missold the car, that the technical fix approved by technical authorities has had a detrimental affect on efficiency, or that resale values of affected cars have fallen”, says the motoring magazine.

In response to the lawsuit, which began on Monday, VW is arguing that its vehicles “are driven by hundreds of thousands of customers every day, which is why we believe there is no damage and therefore no cause for complaint”, the BBC reports.

This is the first time that customers in Germany have been able to pursue a group claim, following a law change last year. 

What is “Dieselgate”?

The Volkswagen emissions scandal, commonly referred to as “Dieselgate”, began in September 2015 after it emerged that VW was using cheat devices to make their diesel-engined models produce less exhaust gases during laboratory testing. 

The tests took place before cars were put on sale and measured the emissions that they released, says Auto Express. But once the cheat devices were deactivated, diesel cars were found to be producing “40 times” more harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases. 

As well as VW’s own models, the software was also used during tests on other cars produced under the Volkswagen Group umbrella, including Audi, Porsche, Seat and Skoda. 

Hasn’t VW been fined billions already?

Yes. The company has already forked out more than €30bn (£26.6bn) in fines, legal costs and compensation in cases around the world over the past four years, The Guardian reports. 

These penalties include a $4.3bn (£3.8bn) fine from the US Department of Justice, a $15.3bn (£12.5bn) settlement fee with US federal and state governments, as well as owners of VW cars with 2.0-litre engines, plus $1bn (£812m) to drivers of models with 3.0-litre engines, the Financial Times reports. 

In Germany, the company agreed to pay a €1bn (£890m) “administrative penalty” last year, adds The Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile, VW-owned Audi accepted a €800m (£710m) fine last October over its role in the emissions case.

VW has also paid a total of AUD$127m (£69.3m) in compensation to buyers in Australia, equating to around AUD$1,400  (£763) per customer, says Auto Express.

So how long will proceedings take?

VW expects the German court case to take around four years, unless a settlement is reached beforehand, the BBC’s Theo Leggett says. If the car owners win, they’ll then need to go back to the courts to get compensation. 

The company is also facing the possibility of “hefty fines” from the EU, over allegations that VW colluded with other carmakers to delay the introduction of emission control systems. 

And German prosecutors last week charged VW chief executive Herbert Diess, chair Hans Dieter Potsch and former CEO Martin Winterkorn with “stock market manipulation” in relation to the emission scandal, as Autocar reported.

“Against that background, the group lawsuit may seem for the moment like just another irritation,” says the BBC’s Leggett.

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