VW faces deluge of UK legal claims over emissions tests

Law firms say car owners, dealerships and shareholders may have strong case as Germany confirms defeat devices were fitted in European models

Volkswagen faces a barrage of legal claims from British car owners over the emissions tests scandal, according to top law firms.

Lawyers say they have been inundated with inquiries from VW drivers whose vehicles may have been far more polluting than claimed, after the German carmaker admitted installing defeat devices to cheat tests.

The chief executive of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, quit on Wednesday, with the group facing criminal investigations in the US and other countries, plus potential legal claims worldwide, with 11m vehicles directly affected.

A spokesman for Leigh Day, a London-based law firm specialising in personal injury and product liability claims, said it had been inundated by inquiries. The number of potential claimants they were talking to would number “in the thousands – it’s constant inquirers at the moment”, he said.

Another law firm, Slater & Gordon, said it was fielding calls from concerned drivers. The firm’s head of group litigation, Jacqueline Young, said owners and car dealerships would have viable legal claims for breach of contract, with the value of vehicles falsely boosted by VW’s misrepresentations. Shareholders might also have a case, Young said, after the 30% fall in its share price since the scandal erupted.

The German transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, has confirmed that Volkswagen vehicles containing software to fix emissions standards were sold across Europe.

Young said a class-action lawsuit was possible: “If the Volkswagen scandal applies to cars in the UK then this has the potential to be one of the largest group action lawsuits this country has seen.”

She said drivers should not expect to claim back the whole value of their car, but some recompense for its fall in value. “Many of these drivers paid more for a greener car – on average £2,000 – only to find that that car is not greener after all.”

But lawyers who have advised global carmakers said such claims would not necessarily succeed. Ian Plumley, of Clyde and Co, a specialist in product liability and recall, said: “Claimant law firms have a successful model and are creative in bringing cases, but it’s not a slam dunk at all – especially in the UK where you have a professional, impartial judiciary, whereas in the US you have regional differences and jury trials which can have an influence on the success or otherwise of cases.”

Plumley said claims from investors at group level were inevitable, but consumer legal claims would not be the biggest problem: “I think the more substantial issue is the reputational harm rather than the sanctions. It dents consumer confidence and the brand and can take a long time to repair.”

VW has put aside an initial €6.5bn (£4.8bn) to deal with the costs of the crisis, although that sum could be dwarfed by fines from US regulators. The carmaker has enlisted Kirkland & Ellis – the US law firm employed by BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster – to deal with its mounting legal claims.

Concerns over true pollution levels have also spread to fuel consumption, with the consumer group Which? having long reported discrepancies between official miles per gallon test figures and its own results, with the VW Golf being the second-worst offender in its research.

Richard Lloyd, the Which? executive director, said: “Our research has consistently showed that the official test used by carmakers is seriously in need of updating as it contains a number of loopholes that lead to unrealistic performance claims.”

Pressure has grown on the UK government to follow up its call for a European commission inquiry, after it was revealed that the Department for Transport had been lobbying in private for less rigorous tests.

The environmental law organisation ClientEarth has written to the DfT asking it take action to establish whether VW’s use of defeat devices was part of a wider industry practice, and to release all information held on the true emissions performance of cars licensed for sale on UK roads.

James Thornton, head of ClientEarth, said: “Five days into the diesel emissions scandal the government has taken no action to reassure the public that cars on our roads meet even the lax standards required by EU law. The industry has shown it cannot be trusted. We cannot wait for action from the EU. First responsibility for protecting our health lies with our own government. The public must know the full scale of the problem and urgent action must be taken to fix it.”

The transport select committee is set to launch an inquiry into the scandal and its wider lessons for testing, which could lead to ministers and VW executives in Britain being questioned by MPs. While an inquiry cannot be officially launched until parliament returns in October, Louise Ellman, chair of the committee, said: “Action must be taken to give the public confidence in the testing regime in relation to emissions, safety, recyclability and other factors. There are questions over whether the testing authorities commissioned by motor manufacturers are truly independent.”


Gwyn Topham and Graeme Wearden

The GuardianTramp

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