If you were not just rescued from an uninhabited island, you have heard about the significant consumer fraud that VW appears to have committed. The Volkswagen emissions mess raises some interesting legal questions about who can do what for whom to rectify the harms of Volkswagen’s wrongdoing. This is where different levels of law enforcement and the justice system will fulfill different roles.
First, it is very likely that what Volkswagen did violate various government codes, like those set by, and enforced by, the Environmental Protection Agency. Those violations carry fines that the EPA has the power to impose. But those fines, although likely substantial in dollars, are usually levied against the business, rather than individual wrongdoers, and do not address either criminal activity or the consequences for the actual car owners—the consumer.
Second, certain types of intentional fraud, deceit, and “theft” are considered crimes, rather than just regulatory violations. Such crimes can carry prison sentences for the wrongdoers. Separate from the agencies of various governments, like the EPA, the criminal justice systems will separately prosecute individuals for any crimes that may have been committed. These criminal prosecutions are usually against the individuals, not the corporations as a whole. You can’t really put a corporation in prison, but you can put a VW programmer there. But, again, these criminal prosecutions still leave out the consumer. Throwing someone in jail, like fining the company, does not help the car owner directly.
So, third, civil lawsuits will be (already have been) filed to pursue the interests of the VW owners. An individual car owner has the right to hire a lawyer and file his or her own suit against VW. But, that may be very expensive to do on an individual basis. That is why “class action” suits are often used, even mandated by the courts, to resolve such civil matters, where millions of consumers may have been wronged in the same or similar ways by the same defendant. These actions combine many plaintiffs (individual car owners) under the same lawsuit for efficiency. Many such suits have already been filed against VW, and it is likely that these will be consolidated into just a few, which will be joined together in the same proceedings under the same judge or magistrate. It is this third kind of legal action that can address the losses that the individual car owners may have experienced by not getting what they bargained for, and now having vehicles that have lost significant value.
I do not personally handle class action suits, but am happy to discuss this with anyone who has questions or wishes for some guidance on how to proceed. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact Attorney Kevin Fine with Davis Miles McGuire Gardner at (480) 733-6800 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.