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Supreme Court turns down emissions tampering appeal from Volkswagen

The German automaker has been swamped in legal battles for years following a whistleblower’s revelations that the company evaded emissions tests.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear two cases from the German auto giant Volkswagen over fallout from its 2015 emissions cheating scandal. 

The two cases before the court — Volkswagen Group of America v. the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, Florida and Volkswagen v. Ohio — asked if state and local officials had the authority to regulate manufacturers’ used car updates for emissions systems. 

The EPA began investigating Volkswagen in 2015 for emissions violations and the investigation was broke open a year later when a whistleblower came forward unearthing the company’s scheme to evade emissions regulations. The company admitted wrongdoing and agreed to pay over $23 billion in fines and software fixes. 

Volkswagen was subsequently sued by 10 states and 35 counties for its actions. Hillsborough County, Florida, and Salt Lake County, Utah, wanted to penalize the automaker for the vehicles driven in their jurisdictions with software defeat devices used to cheat emissions tests, and Ohio sued Volkswagen for violating the state’s Anti-Tampering Law. 

The counties in Florida and Utah sued Volkswagen asking for daily penalties on 6,100 cars totaling $11.2 billion annually. A district court dismissed the claims and the counties appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which dismissed the claims on new cars but allowed claims on used cars to move forward. The San Francisco-based appeals court declined to rehear Volkswagen’s case and granted a stay pending review from the Supreme Court. 

“Volkswagen devotes most of its pitch for certiorari to a question the Ninth Circuit didn’t decide,” Peter Stris, an attorney from Stris & Maher representing Hillsborough County, wrote in a brief opposing Volkswagen's appeal to the nation's top court.

He added, “The thrust of its argument is that states and local governments cannot be allowed to penalize EPA-approved conduct or ‘impose conflicting regulation[s] on manufacturers.’ Maybe so, but that has nothing to do with this case. The counties do not seek to penalize anything EPA approved because Volkswagen ‘deceive[d]’ EPA and evaded the very regulatory approval process it invokes.”

Following the high court’s announcement Monday morning that it would not hear the case, a spokesperson for the firm representing Hillsborough County said they were happy with the court’s decision. 

“By denying Volkswagen’s petition, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that local governments play a critical role in combatting air pollution,” a spokesperson at Stris & Maher said via email. “We couldn’t be more pleased.” 

Ohio sued Volkswagen for penalties on 14,000 cars for a total of $35 million per day. The claims were dismissed by a trial court but then the state asked the 10th District Court of Appeals to reconsider the part of its case concerning used cars, and the appellate judges overturned the trial court’s ruling on that issue. Volkswagen appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the justices affirmed the appeals court's ruling. 

“While the federal government takes the lead in regulating emissions from new cars, the states play a substantial role in regulating pollution from used cars,” Dave Yost, the attorney general of Ohio, said in the state’s brief opposing the automaker's petition to the Supreme Court. 

A spokesperson for Volkswagen said the court’s decision to not hear the cases was based on "one-sided records" and that it is confident that the software updates it implemented reduced emissions. 

“This is not a determination of the merits of Volkswagen’s arguments and is based on one-sided records taken from the plaintiffs' complaints,” a spokesperson for Volkswagen said via email. “We are confident in the strength of our factual and legal defenses, including that the software updates reduced emissions, and will contest these claims vigorously as these cases proceed.”

The company recently settled two similar claims with New Hampshire and Montana for $1.15 million and $357,280, respectively. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Business, Environment, Government

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