After Volkswagen’s much-publicized emissions cheating scandal, the United States Justice Department has filed a civil lawsuit against the automaker. VW is accused of violating the Clean Air Act by installing illegal systems that allow vehicles to cheat emissions tests and stealthily produce heavy air pollution. According to a senior Justice Department official, VW may face fines of up to $90 billion, or $37,500 per vehicle that is determined to have violated the law.
Filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, the lawsuit cites four specific counts in which VW violated the Clean Air Act, including tampering with their vehicles’ emissions control system and not reporting the violations to the authorities. “We’re alleging that they knew what they were doing, they intentionally violated the law and that the consequences were significant to health,” says the senior Justice Department official. In the lawsuit, the Justice Department states VW installed software in the vehicle’s computer, which enabled it to determine the kind of surface on which it is driving. If it was on a road, the system would disable the emissions control systems, which allowed the vehicles to emit a hazardous amount of air pollution.
To win the case, the United States need only prove that fraud occurred. “I don’t think there is any defense in a civil suit,” says Daniel Riesel, who serves as defense attorney for companies accused of environmental crimes. Riesel predicts that VW will attempt to negotiate a lower penalty by arguing that such a massive fine would be a financial burden, leading to layoffs. The United States is also considering criminal charges against Volkswagen for fraud against US consumers and regulators, though the burden of proof in a criminal case would be much higher.