Texas County Sues VW for $100 Million Over Doctored Diesels

  • Court action may be first government emission-scandal suit
  • Each affected vehicle can mean a $25,000-a-day penalty

The Texas county that includes Houston sued Volkswagen Group of America Inc. for $100 million, claiming the carmaker’s cheating on emission controls worsened  pollution in the area. It’s believed to the the first government claim stemming from the VW emission scandal, according to county officials.

The county is seeking penalties of as much as $25,000 a day for an estimated 6,000 diesel-powered Volkswagen autos sold there since 2009, Vince Ryan, the county attorney, said in an e-mailed statement.

“The number of tampered vehicles could increase as the county continues its investigation,” Ryan said. Each vehicle sold constitutes a violation a day, according to the complaint.

The county is parsing sales tax rolls and may seek sales records to determine the exact number of suspect diesel-powered autos sold during the target period, Sarah Utley, assistant county attorney for environmental enforcement, said in a phone interview.

Numbers in the complaint are “very gross estimates” based on Houston’s proportional share of nationwide sales of those Volkswagen models, given that Harris County is the heart of the fourth-largest city in America, she said.

Other Counties

Utley said Harris County is reaching out to other major urban counties in Texas to see if they’d like to participate in the litigation. The county will also coordinate with a multistate investigation into the automaker by state attorneys general, including Texas, she said.

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen, because a lot depends on how Volkswagen handles it,” Utley said. “Their actions were so intransigent and horrendous, and it was shocking that they got away with for so long. Their plan was evil-genius brilliant until they got caught.”

Jeannine Ginivan, Volkswagen’s U.S. spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit since it is litigation in progress.

The sprawling Houston area, home to the U.S.’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants and refineries, suffers from poor air quality exacerbated by “massive” traffic congestion, Ryan said.

Ozone Emissions

Pollution regulators have classified the county as a non-attainment zone for smog-causing ozone emissions for years, and the excessive nitrogen oxide emitted by Volkswagen’s faulty vehicles contributed to that problem, Ryan said in a complaint filed Tuesday in state court in Houston.

The county sued in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates air pollution .

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited Volkswagen this month for outfitting diesel vehicles with software that lowered engine emissions during testing but allowed them to soar to as much as 40 times allowable levels under normal driving conditions.

Harris County also sued Audi of America LLC for allegedly faulty emissions
controls on Audi A3 models sold in the area, according to the complaint. The
diesel-powered sport sedan was listed in the EPA’s notice of violation
alongside five Volkswagen models.

The case is Harris County v. Volkswagen Group of America, 2015-57864, 234th Judicial District of Harris County (Houston).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.