Hundreds of thousands join mass lawsuit against Volkswagen over emissions scandal

Almost half a million diesel owners have signed up to a landmark case seeking compensation from the car giant

The hearing took place just 20 miles from Volkswagen's Wolfsburg headquarters. AFP
The hearing took place just 20 miles from Volkswagen's Wolfsburg headquarters. AFP

A case pitting hundreds of thousands of diesel vehicle owners against automotive giant Volkswagen opened in Germany on Monday, four years on from the emissions scandal that rocked the car industry.

Some 470,000 consumers aim to establish a right to compensation from the German manufacturer for vehicles affected by the diesel emissions scandal.

The hearing, which began on Monday morning at Braunschweig Higher Regional Court – around 20 miles from Volkswagen’s headquarters in the northern city of Wolfsburg – is the first in a landmark case that the car giant’s lawyers say could run for as long as four years.

The case, brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (VZBV), is the first mass lawsuit to take place in the country under new rules enacted in 2018.

The new system was prompted in part by the scandal, nicknamed dieselgate, which erupted in 2015 when it was discovered that Volkswagen had used software to disable emissions controls when its vehicles weren’t being tested.

Some vehicles were found to emit up to 40 times more harmful nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, than legally allowed.

VZBV say the German carmaker deliberately harmed buyers by installing the software that allowed vehicles to pollute far more on the road than under test conditions.

"I would like Volkswagen to reimburse the purchase price" said Andreas Sarcletti, a customer who had made the trip from nearby Hanover, "but I'm worried the trial is going to last a very long time."

One of the most important questions facing judges in the case is whether the carmaker “caused harm” by acting dishonestly”.

"We're confident of our chances, since Volkswagen committed fraud," VZBV lawyer Ralph Sauer told AFP ahead of the hearing.

But VW lawyer Martine de Lind van Wijngaarden said there was "no harm and no basis to this claim" because "hundreds of thousands of cars are used" on the roads without problem.

VW thinks a final judgement could arrive in 2023 at the earliest, if the case is appealed all the way to the Federal Court of Justice.

The scandal is believed to have already cost the car giant €30 billion (Dh 120.3 billion) in fines, compensation and legal costs, and this latest stage is the largest legal claim of its kind in modern German history.

In 2017, the company settled its legal entanglements in the US, paying around $22 billion in fines and compensation to dealers and around 600,000 car owners, with some money also going to environmental clean-up.

To date, just €2.3 billion has been paid out under the terms of three fines imposed in Germany.

In addition to the mass lawsuit, around 61,000 individual cases have already been filed against the car giant.

Investors who lost out when the company’s shares plummeted by 40 per cent in the wake of the dieselgate revelations are seeking €9 billion in compensation.

VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn, who stepped down five days after the scandal broke, was charged with serious fraud, unfair competition and breach of trust in April 2019.

Published: September 30, 2019 05:15 PM

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