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Hillsborough County joins wave of suits over Volkswagen emissions tampering

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission voted Wednesday to join the growing list of governments and individuals that are suing German automaker Volkswagen for skirting emissions rules.

The lawsuit will be filed against Volkswagen Group and Volkswagen America by the end of the week in federal court in Tampa. But the EPC hopes its case soon moves to a San Francisco courtroom where it would join what figures to be one of the largest class-action lawsuits in United States history.

At least five states have already filed suit against Volkswagen and hundreds of other lawsuits are in the works. The U.S. Justice Department is seeking $46 billion in its own lawsuit against VW for violating clean air laws.

Volkswagen has admitted to installing software that allowed its diesel cars to pass emission inspections even though its vehicles emitted 40 times the greenhouse gases allowed under federal law. It's estimated about 580,000 cars sold in the United States since 2009 were affected.

The EPC's claim stems from one of its rules that prohibits anyone from tampering with the emission control system of a vehicle. The rule, which dates to 1987, is rarely invoked and appears distinct in Florida to the Environmental Protection Commission — itself a unique body created by special act of the Legislature to regulate pollution in Hillsborough.

EPC general counsel Rick Tschantz said the rule is "tailor made" for the Volkswagen case.

"We agreed that a case could be brought and a case should be brought here due to the actions of this company being so egregious," Tschantz said, "and how much emissions are being put into the atmosphere right here in Hillsborough County on a daily basis."

There are about 1,200 affected vehicles in Hillsborough County, Tschantz said.

The action is similar to Hillsborough County's lawsuit against BP after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Hillsborough won $28.5 million in a settlement, though after lawyers took their share, the county was left with about $22.8 million.

Hillsborough's EPC, which is made up of the seven county commissioners, voted unanimously to pay an outside legal team one-third of any settlement won from Volkswagen. If the suit is unsuccessful, the lawyers won't get anything.

The EPC only recently learned it had grounds to sue from a group of Tampa lawyers at Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort and Thomas Young. Alabama-based firm Beasley Allen, which is already involved in the class-action lawsuit, will represent the EPC along with the two local firms.

Meanwhile, eight local residents opted out of the class-action lawsuit and filed their own suit against Volkswagen Wednesday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. They allege, among other claims, misleading advertising and breach of express warranty.

Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment.

"The Hillsborough County EPC has done a tremendous job of improving our air and water quality, and this type of activity causes a tremendous setback that should not go unpunished," said Truett Gardner of Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort. "Fortunately, the EPC has a clear law that is perfectly on point that penalizes anyone for tampering with a vehicle's emission system, and the law provides a clear penalty. This is exactly what Volkswagen has done."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

Hillsborough County joins wave of suits over Volkswagen emissions tampering 03/23/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2016 8:15pm]
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