Why would Volkswagen owe 'many millions of dollars' to Hillsborough County environmental regulators?
TAMPA — Hundreds of Volkswagen diesel car owners will argue in court that they were duped by the German automaker into believing their vehicles meet federal emission standards. And several states are already suing VW on behalf of their consumers, claiming they were deceived.
But that’s not the argument Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission made in its lawsuit this week against Volkswagen, as well as Audi and Porsche.
So why does the EPC believe those automakers owe it “many millions of dollars,” according to the complaint filed yesterday?
The EPC’s case will probably be one of the most unique lawsuits that will come before a San Francisco court, where a judge is already assigned to the multi-district litigation. That’s because the commission has a rule on its books that seems tailor made for Volkswagen’s illegal action.
It says: “No person shall tamper, cause, or allow the tampering of the emission control system of any motor vehicle” and “no person or motor vehicle dealer shall offer a tampered motor vehicle for private or retail sale, or effect the transfer of title of any tampered motor vehicle.”
That’s exactly what Volkswagen did, according to U.S. regulators. About 600,000 VW diesel vehicles in the United States were sold with software designed to help their cars cheat emission tests. On the road, some of their cars emitted greenhouse gases 40 times the federal limits.
The rule, which dates to 1987, is rarely invoked because this kind of blatant tampering just isn’t common. EPC general counsel Rick Tschantz doesn’t believe any other Florida county has a similar rule. The EPC itself is a unique body created by special act of the state Legislature to regulate pollution in Hillsborough County and the lawsuit plays up the EPC's effectiveness at improving air and water quality here over the past half century. Volkswagen, the suit says, threatened those efforts.
The violation comes with a fine of up to $5,000 — per vehicle, per day. And there were about 1,118 of these cars in Hillsborough, according to the EPC. The illegal tampering dates back to 2009, meaning it’s possible some of these cars may have been driven illegally for seven years.
Even if those 1,118 cars were just on the road one day, the collective fine to Volkswagen could be as much as $5.6 million. If they were driven for a year, we’re talking about a $2.04 billion maximum fine. To put that in perspective, the U.S. Justice Department is seeking $46 billion in its own lawsuit.
The EPC is readily aware it won’t get anything close to that from VW and the other carmakers. When Hillsborough County sued BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they asked for $43 million and eventually won $28 million.
Also, the EPC’s unique rule may give it a vehicle to sue Volkswagen, but it also means it will have to give lawyers a larger chunk of any settlement. Because the case will be different than the rest of the claims in the class action lawsuit, lawyers want (and the commissioners agreed to pay them) one-third of any payout from VW (though they get nothing if the EPC loses). In the BP case, the legal team took 20 percent.
Still, the EPC could be in line for a large chunk of change if and when VW settles what is shaping up to be one of the largest class action lawsuits in U.S. history.