The High Court said today that Volkswagen put unlawful ‘defeat devices’ in thousands of its diesel vehicles.
It is the first major ruling during a class action in England and Wales over the dieselgate emissions scandal. However, VW is refusing to take it lying down and is looking to lodge an appeal, adding that the decision didn’t determine liability.
Some 90,000 motorists who bought Audi, Seat, Skoda and VW diesel vehicles are claiming for compensation in a case set to be the largest consumer action in English legal history.
Their lawyers say Volkswagen ‘cheated’ European emissions standards designed ‘to save lives’, by installing the illegal devices in its diesel vehicles. These devices detected and activated the complete emissions control systems when official testing was taking place.
The controls were then deactivated for normal driving, letting the vehicles pump out up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide when on the road.
The scandal originally broke in the USA in September 2015, and Volkswagen Group subsequently announced that 11 million vehicles worldwide, including almost 1.2 million in the UK, were affected, prompting a rash of legal action globally.
The aftermath has seen it pay out more than 30bn euros (circa £26bn) in fines, recall costs and civil settlements, as well as criminal charges brought by German prosecutors against current and former senior employees.
The English litigation was filed in 2016 and reached what lawyers called ‘a decisive court battle’ at a preliminary hearing in December, when the High Court was asked to decide whether software installed in VW cars was a ‘defeat device’ under EU regulations.
In a judgment delivered remotely this morning, Mr Justice Waksman ruled that ‘the software function in issue in this case is indeed a defeat device’ under EU regulations.
The judge said he was ‘far from alone in this conclusion’, citing ‘numerous courts and other bodies in various other jurisdictions (which) agree that the software function here is a defeat device’.
He added: ‘While I take comfort from that fact, I make it clear that there is no need to resort to it because in my judgment the answer is so plain in any event.’
Bozena Michalowska-Howells, who is a solicitor at Leigh Day, which represented some of the claimants, said: ‘We hope that Volkswagen accepts the court’s decision and we urge them to now do the right thing and put their customers first by entering into settlement negotiations so that our clients are not forced to drag VW through the courts and be faced with further years of litigation to determine their losses.’
However, in a statement, a spokesperson on behalf of Volkswagen Group said: ‘While Volkswagen is disappointed that the outcome was not in our favour, the judgment relates only to preliminary issues. To be clear, today’s decision does not determine liability or any issues of causation or loss for any of the causes of action claimed. These remain to be determined by the court as the case continues.
‘Volkswagen remains confident in our case that we are not liable to the claimants as alleged and the claimants did not suffer any loss. We will continue to defend our position robustly. Nothing in this decision today changes this. We look forward to making progress with defending the remainder of the case.
‘Volkswagen is considering carefully the grounds on which it may seek to appeal against today’s decision.’