The first major battle in mass litigation brought against Volkswagen over the “Dieselgate” emissions scandal is set to be heard by the High Court.
Tens of thousands of motorists who bought VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda diesel vehicles are taking the German car giant to court for compensation in a case which could be the largest consumer action in English legal history.
Their lawyers say VW installed software which was designed to detect when vehicles were being tested and switch engines to a cleaner mode in an attempt to “cheat clean air laws” – meaning the vehicles were emitting up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide when out on the road.
In September 2015, Volkswagen Group announced that 11 million vehicles worldwide, including almost 1.2 million in the UK, were affected, prompting a flurry of litigation around the world.
The aftermath of the scandal has seen VW pay out more than 30 billion euros (£26 billion) in fines, recall costs and civil settlements, and has led to criminal charges by German prosecutors against current and former senior employees.
The English litigation was filed back in 2016, but has now reached what lawyers have called “a decisive court battle” starting on Monday.
At a two-week preliminary hearing in London, Mr Justice Waksman will be asked to rule on whether the software installed in the cars was a “defeat device” under EU regulations.
The judge will also be asked to determine whether the High Court is bound by the German transport regulator’s finding that the software installed was a defeat device.
Gareth Pope, head of group litigation at Slater and Gordon, which represents more than 70,000 claimants, said in a statement: “This trial will establish once and for all whether VW installed prohibited ‘defeat devices’ in affected vehicles and is a significant milestone in our clients’ attempts to hold VW accountable in the UK.
“This is a decisive point for VW. For years, the carmaker has deceived its customers, marketing cars as complying with emissions standards while all the time knowing they were emitting many time more than the allowed level of toxic pollutants, perpetrating an environmental and health scandal.
“VW has had plenty of opportunity to come clean, make amends and move on from this highly damaging episode.
“But instead it’s chosen to spend millions of pounds denying the claims our clients have been forced to bring against it rather than paying that to their own customers in compensation.”
One of the claimants, Brian Levine – who bought two affected Volkswagens – said: “VW’s tactics have been to delay and prevaricate – anything but face a day when it would have to explain what this software did. Well, that day has finally come.
“More than four years after the emissions scandal broke, the tens of thousands of customers will be able to hold VW to account in a British court of law and expose its efforts to cheat us.”
A VW spokeswoman said: “Volkswagen Group continues to defend robustly its position in the High Court in London.
“It remains Volkswagen Group’s case that the claimants did not suffer any loss at all and that the affected vehicles did not contain a prohibited defeat device.
“The hearing will not affect any questions of liability or loss.”