VW diesel emissions class actions transferred, centralized by MDL Panel in San Francisco federal court

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 16, 2015

The blizzard of litigation filed against Volkswagen in the wake of revelations the automaker allegedly installed devices on diesel cars to fool emissions testing equipment has been redirected to federal court in San Francisco.

Across the country, more than 500 lawsuits - primarily class action complaints - have been lodged in federal district courts against Volkswagen. In the Northern District of Illinois, for instance, 19 such lawsuits have been filed since allegations against the automaker first surfaced in mid-September.

The litigation against VW, however, has centered on the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. In California alone, 101 lawsuits have been brought against VW over the issue.

On Dec. 9, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered all of the pending lawsuits transferred and centralized for proceedings in the Northern District of California, based in San Francisco, before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.

Breyer is the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Attorneys for none of the parties objected to the idea of centralization of the cases. However, the MDL Panel noted plaintiffs and VW had argued for a number of potential transfer possibilities. VW, for instance, had requested the cases be sent to the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit.

Ultimately, the MDL Panel said it favored the Northern District of California for several reasons. The panel noted 30 lawsuits against VW are pending in that district, including the first such complaint filed in the U.S. And the panel said the selection would put court proceedings near the headquarters of the California Air Resources Board, which the panel noted “played an important initial role in investigating and, ultimately, revealing VW’s use of the defeat devices.”

The panel said it selected Breyer to hear the cases “because he is a jurist who is thoroughly familiar with the nuances of complex, multidistrict litigation by virtue of having presided over nine MDL dockets, some of which involved numerous international defendants.”

The panel noted this case would likely involve efforts that are “international in scope,” as it expects many key witnesses and evidence to be found overseas.

“Indeed, much of the underlying conduct at the center of plaintiffs’ claims likely occurred in Germany,” the panel wrote in its Dec. 9 order.

Most of the lawsuits locally and nationally have been brought by individuals who claim VW’s claims regarding the emissions and fuel efficiency of its “clean diesel” engines prompted them to buy the cars. Some of the lawsuits, however, involve dealership groups and other businesses.

Plaintiffs in the hundreds of pending cases are seeking a range of damages, including some who are demanding VW buy back the cars, on top of other damages.

The cases all center on reports alleging, since 2009, Volkswagen has violated the Clean Air Act by marketing “clean diesel” engine cars that still function as high-performance automobiles. The company is accused of installing “defeat devices” to bypass fuel emissions controls as well as “switch devices” to bypass Environmental Protection Agency compliance testing. As a result, the cases allege, the affected vehicles “spew as much as 40 times” the legally allowed pollution levels.

The EPA and California Air Resources Board presented emission reports to Volkswagen, leading to a December 2014 voluntary software recall. When that failed to remediate the pollution problem during further testing, Volkswagen eventually admitted it had installed software to deceive emissions testing equipment.

During normal operating, complaints stated, the software switched to “road calibration” mode, which reduces “effectiveness of the emission control system and increase(s) emissions of nitrogen oxides 10 to 40 times above EPA compliant levels.”

Since the EPA says the road calibration mode and switch capability do not conform to the specifications Volkswagen listed in its certificate of conformity application, the complaints accuse Volkswagen of violating the Clean Air Act each time a new defective vehicle entered the sales inventory.

The complaints include allegations of fraud, concealment and violations of various states’ consumer fraud and deceptive practices laws.

Law firms representing plaintiffs who filed suit in Chicago include: Power, Rogers & Smith; Eimer Stahl; Sweetnam LLC; Bock & Hatch; Edward T. Joyce & Associates; Freeborn & Peters; Barnow & Associates; Morgan Law; Sawin Law; Clifford Law Offices; Siprut P.C.; DiTomasso Lubin; Stepick Law; the Progressive Law Group; Grotefeld Hoffmann Schleiter Gordon & Ochoa, and Ansari & Shapiro, all of Chicago; Andersen Wanca, of Rolling Meadows; and Heygood, Orr & Pearson, of Irving, Texas.

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Organizations in this Story

Anderson Wanca Ansari & Shapiro LLC Barnow and Associates, P.C. Bock & Hatch LLC Clifford Law DiTomasso Lubin Law Offices Eimer Stahl LLP Freeborn & Peters Grotefeld, Hoffmann, Schleiter, Gordon & Ochoa LLP. Heygood, Orr & Pearson. Morgan Law Firm Ltd. Power Rogers & Smith Progressive Law Group Sawin Law Firm Ltd. Siprut P.C. Stepick Law LLC Sweetnam LLC The Law Offices of Edward T. Joyce & Associates PC U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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