The action opens the way for fines being imposed against VW. This could be as high as £61 billion if the maximum fine of up to £25,500 per vehicle is imposed.
The complaint was filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and alleges that the VW Group's actions not only led its vehicles to "cause emissions to exceed its standards", but also that VW's actions led it to violate the Clean Air Act "by selling, introducing into commerce, or importing into the United States motor vehicles that are designed differently from what Volkswagen had stated in applications for certification".
The case is related to the USA only, and does not cover the alleged CO2 infingements also uncovered during the scandal.
“Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors,” said assistant attorney general John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The United States will pursue all appropriate remedies against Volkswagen to redress the violations of our nation’s clean air laws alleged in the complaint.”
VW responded with a statement, which read: "Volkswagen will continue to work co-operatively with the EPA on developing remedies to bring the TDI vehicles into full compliance with regulations as soon as possible. In addition, we are working with [legal firm] Kenneth Feinberg to develop an independent, fair and swift process for resolving private consumer claims relating to these issues. We will continue to co-operate with all government agencies investigating these matters."
The filing refers both to the EA189 diesel engine derivates that were highlighted when the scandal began, the defeat device for which could reduce emissions from real-world figures by up to 40 times, and 3.0-litre diesel engines which were found to be running a "temperature conditioning" mode to reduce emissions by up to nine times when the car dedected it was undergoing tests.
The filing also highlighted the harm NOx particulates can do, as well as potential damage to ground-level ozone. The statement, which is considered an opening salvo in a case to force VW to pay compensation, read: "These pollutants are linked with asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses. Exposure to ozone and particulate matter is also associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects. Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory disease are particularly at risk of health effects from exposure to these pollutants. Recent studies indicate that the direct health effects of NOx are worse than previously understood, including respiratory problems, damage to lung tissue and premature death."
VW is understood to be arguing that the maximum fine would cripple the company, and that its ongoing existence depends on the courts showing leniancy. Even so, analysts are predicting that fines could reach at least £20bn.
The filing, made in Detroit on the eve of the motor show, is a civil complaint. It does not preclude the government from seeking other legal action.
Affected EA189 2.0-litre diesel models and model years include:
VW Jetta (2009-2015)
VW Jetta Sportwagen (2009-2014)
VW Beetle (2013-2015)
VW Beetle Convertible (2013-2015)
Audi A3 (2010-2015)
VW Golf (2010-2015)
VW Golf Sportwagen (2015)
VW Passat (2012-2015)
Affected 3.0-litre diesel models and model years include:
Volkswagen Touareg (2009-2016)
Porsche Cayenne (2013-2016)
Audi A6 Quattro (2014-2016)
Audi A7 Quattro (2014-2016)
Audi A8 (2014 – 2016)
Audi A8L (2014-2016)
Audi Q5 (2014-2016)
Audi Q7 (2009-2015)