DOJ Files Suit Against Volkswagen, Could Go After Execs

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Department of Justice filed its first charges against Volkswagen on Monday. In a civil complaint filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, the Justice Department alleges that Volkswagen repeatedly and illegally violated the Clean Air Act by installing "defeat devices" on its so-called clean diesel vehicles. Those devices allowed the cars to cheat emissions tests and release air pollution at much higher rates than allowed under the Clean Air Act.

The case could lead to civil fines of costing tens of billions of dollars. But that's just the opening salvo in the government's response to the VW emissions scandal and does not foreclose the possibility of criminal charges against Volkswagen executives sometime in the near future.

The DOJ's Complaint

The Justice Department filed its complaint, on behalf of the EPA, in Detroit on Monday, but the case is expected to soon be transferred to San Francisco, where it will join hundreds of class actions against Volkswagen.

The complaint alleges that VW violated Title II of the Clean Air Act, which establishes motor vehicle emissions standards, along with testing and reporting requirements. Title II also establishes civil penalties for CAA violations of nearly $40,000 a car for violating the Act's prohibition on defeat devices.

In 30 pages, the DOJ lays out how Volkswagen attempted (successfully for a number of years) to evade emissions limitations on nitrogen oxide and other pollutants. According to the complaint, 580,000 VW vehicles with defeat devices were sold in the United States. Those devices turned on emission controls only when the cars detected an emissions test. On the road, VW's clean diesel vehicles spewed out as much as 40 times the legal level of air pollution.

VW did not just cheat the emissions tests, it actively concealed information from regulators when they first began inquiring. That is, until VW was caught and came clean in September.

Those reporting violations could be equally expensive for Volkswagen. Whereas the CAA establishes penalties of up to $37,500 per car for defeat devices, violating the Act's reporting requirements could cost Volkswagen $37,500 per day, for a period that lasted years.

Are Criminal Charges Ahead?

The DOJ has made it clear that it's not likely to stop with a civil suit. The complaint "is the first stage in bringing Volkswagen to justice," according to U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade after the suit was filed. According to Carl Tobias, of the University of Richmond, criminal charges are almost certain. "VW will face criminal charges, but the investigation is still ongoing and will build on the expertise derived from similar probes of GM and Toyota. Toyota took three or four years but GM was faster and VW may be quicker still," he claims.

And, of course, the United States is only one of many governments currently investigating Volkswagen. Germany, South Korea, and India are all in the process of taking action against the company.

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