Volkswagen “cheated” European emissions standards – which were designed “to save lives” – by installing unlawful “defeat devices” in its diesel vehicles, the High Court has heard.
Tens of thousands of motorists who bought VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda diesel vehicles are taking legal action for compensation in the aftermath of the “Dieselgate” emissions scandal.
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 first major battle in the English mass litigation – which could be the largest consumer action in English legal history – began in London on Monday with a preliminary hearing to decide whether software installed in VW cars was a “defeat device” under EU regulations.
Tom de la Mare QC, representing the claimants, told the court that VW engines were “optimised to minimise the amount of pollutants” in emissions tests, meaning the vehicles operated in a “completely different way in the street to how it operated in the test”.
He added: “It is difficult to think of a more obvious cheat than the one VW used.”
Mr de la Mare said European emissions standards were designed “to save lives”, adding that “the most up-to-date evidence” showed that pollution was “killing approximately 1,000 people a day in Europe”.
He said internal VW documents showed that the company has “long known that the software was unlawful and indefensible”, pointing to one document in which a VW employee said the vehicles would “flunk” emissions tests without the software.
He submitted that the documents showed a “clear acceptance that the software was the only basis on which they were meeting the emissions limits”.
VW’s barrister, Michael Fordham QC, argued in written submissions that the claimants had misunderstood the legal definition of a defeat device.
In a statement before the hearing, 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.”
Mr Justice Waksman will hear submissions over two weeks on whether the software was a “defeat device” under EU regulations, and whether the High Court is bound by the German transport regulator’s finding that it was a defeat device.
It is expected that he will reserve his judgment.