VW a Defendant in Multiplying Class Actions

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By Martina Barash

Sept. 23 — Would-be consumer class actions against Volkswagen AG over its emissions deception are piling up, say plaintiffs' attorneys involved in the litigation.

Firms that have handled big defect- and safety-related class actions in the past are in a good position to pursue the warranty, fraud and other claims against VW.

“A lot of cases have been filed,” attorney Eric Gibbs of Girard Gibbs LLP in San Francisco told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 23. “The consumer outcry is on par with anything I've really seen before.”

“People are very angry and I think they want to have their day in court,” he said.

Girard Gibbs filed a class complaint against Volkswagen Sept. 21 (Lau v. Volkswagen Grp. of Am., Inc., N.D. Cal., No. 5:15-cv-04302, complaint filed 9/21/15).

Girard Gibbs obtained cash reimbursements for drivers of vehicles with defective ignition coils in the 2001–2003 Passat, Jetta, Audi, and other vehicles in previous litigation against Volkswagen, according to an e-mailed statement from the firm.

It's also represented consumers in class actions against against Hyundai Motor Co., KIA Motors Corp., and Ford Motor Co.

The suits started to pour into court dockets after the Environmental Protection Agency announced VW installed deceptive software to make vehicles appear as if they passed emission tests.

More than 1,000 consumers have contacted Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP since it filed its first lawsuit against VW Sept. 18, attorney Steve Berman told Bloomberg News.

Hagens Berman was lead counsel for consumers in the $1.6 billion settlement with Toyota over lost vehicle value tied to unintended acceleration.

Hagens Berman filed a second lawsuit as well, and at least seven other class actions have been filed.

Safety and health concerns aren't completely absent from the emissions imbroglio. “There's a concern about what might happen to vehicles if they're modified by Volkswagen,” Gibbs said.

“And people are concerned about the emissions in a macro sense because they were buying what they thought were eco-friendly cars,” he said. “They're not sure how the change in the emissions would impact them directly—that's something that's under investigation.”

Those consumers' concerns include breathing more emissions than they expected from their own particular vehicles, according to Gibbs.

Volkswagen has made admissions about the deceptions. Michael Horn, head of the brand in the U.S., told reporters Sept. 21, “Our company was dishonest with the EPA, and the California Air Resources Board, and with all of you.”

The effect on the consumer litigation is a little hard to judge, Gibbs said. “Volkswagen's public statements have been unusual and extraordinary, and I applaud them for that,” he said. “We'll see how that plays out in terms of whether they're willing to fairly compensate people.”

“In my experience, admissions can be a good sign, or they can be the beginning of a long fight,” he said.

The hurdles will likely be the same as in other cases, he said: invoking the laws of different states, tort reform enactments in various states that favor defendants, and skilled counsel for his opponents.

Gibbs said he will be seeking varying types of damages for consumers under state and federal law that include restitution for overcharges, rescission (unwinding car purchases) and punitive damages.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina S. Barash in Washington at mbarash@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

The Girard Gibbs complaint is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Lau_et_al_v_Volkswagen_Group_of_America_Inc_et_al_Docket_No_515cv.