Amid Emissions Scandal, Vermonters Launch Class-Action Lawsuit Against Volkswagen

Sep 23, 2015

Burlington-based law firm Downs Rachlin Martin has filed a class action law suit against Volkswagen companies in the U.S. and Germany following revelations the automaker used a “defeat device” to deceive the Environmental Protection Agency emissions tests.

The firm announced Wednesday that it had filed the suit in Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of Charlotte resident Robert Turnau. The lawsuit seeks damages that owners of Volkswagen’s diesel cars have suffered “as a result of the company’s falsification of emissions testing equipment.”

Tristram Coffin, the former U.S. attorney for Vermont, will lead DRM’s litigation team. He said Vermonters purchased Volkswagen’s diesel cars thinking they were better for the environment than they really are.

“Vermonters who bought these cars were led to believe that not only were they taking advantage of clean-burning low sulfur diesel being used in a very efficient diesel engine, but also that the car’s emissions profile was better than gasoline-powered cars and met or exceeded all federal standards,” Coffin said in a statement. “It turns out to be a hoax. Now, these owners face lost value, unknown repairs, the disruption of a massive recall, and the substantial cost and hassle of owning a lemon because of a decision they made when they tried to do the right thing for the environment.”

The company has admitted to federal officials that it installed software in cars that would intentionally provide misleading information to technicians during emissions tests. The software was installed in up to 11 million vehicles worldwide.

The suit filed Wednesday alleges that the companies violated Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act by knowingly selling cars that would fail to meet emissions standards if properly tested. It also alleges the company intentionally designed and installed software that would change the way the engine performed only when it was being tested, which Volkswagen officials reportedly admitted to.

“[U]pon reentering the United States diesel automobile market in 2008, Volkswagen touted its new diesel engine as a landmark development in clean diesel. This was done at auto shows and through company promotions,” the federal complaint says. “Despite making these representations, Volkswagen knew or should have known, that in fact, far from being particularly clean-running, environmentally friendly and efficient, the engines, on information and belief, actually produced higher level emissions than permissible in many jurisdictions and under federal standards, and included a mechanism in the engine operating system that would sense when the car was being tested for emissions and then recalibrate the engine emissions and/or readout in a manner that would meet emissions standards.”

Amid the scandal, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned Wednesday.

"[T]he number of members in the Class is, at a minimum, hundreds if not thousands throughout the State of Vermont." - Federal Lawsuit

  “I am shocked by the events of the past few days. Above all, I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group,” he said in a statement. “As CEO I accept responsibility for the irregularities that have been found in diesel engines and have therefore requested the Supervisory Board to agree on terminating my function as CEO of the Volkswagen Group. I am doing this in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrong doing on my part.”

DRM said in a release Wednesday that Vermonters who purchased or owned a diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta, Golf, Passat or Audi A3 automobile with model years from 2008 to the present could be part of the suit.

“Although the precise number of such individuals is currently unknown, Plaintiff believes the number of members in the Class is, at a minimum, hundreds if not thousands throughout the State of Vermont,” the suit states.

According to DRM, buyers paid a higher price for the vehicles compared to gasoline powered vehicles, in part, because of the company’s claims about lower emissions. The value of the cars is now lower “because of the deception, and owners face unknown challenges in bringing the cars into compliance with federal regulations.”

Disclosure: Plaintiff Robert Turnau is the spouse of VPR's president & CEO.

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and reprinted here through a partnership with the bureau.