Longtime VW owner joins lawsuits against automaker over diesel deception

Longtime VW owner joins lawsuits against automaker over diesel deception

October 3rd, 2015 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Bill Sonnenburg stands with his 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, in Signal Mountain, Tenn. Sonnenburg is a named plaintiff in a local class-action lawsuit filed against the car manufacturer following news that the company programmed its diesel-engine vehicles to cheat on emissions tests.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Bill Sonnenburg holds the original window-sticker for his 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, in Signal Mountain, Tenn. Sonnenburg is a named plaintiff in a local class-action lawsuit filed against the car manufacturer following news that the company programmed its diesel-engine vehicles to cheat on emissions tests.

Bill Sonnenburg holds the original window-sticker for his...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Bill Sonnenburg drove a 1961 Volkswagen Beetle as a teenager, another Beetle in law school, a VW Rabbit that he kept for 15 years, and now he owns a Jetta.

"I've been a VW owner since 1968 most of the time," the Signal Mountain man said. "I'm dismayed that VW would do something as brash to skirt the intent of U.S. environmental laws."

Sonnenburg is one of seven people who have filed a lawsuit against the German automaker in federal court in Chattanooga. The suit, which seeks class action status, is one of at least 34 filed nationwide after VW admitted it installed a defeat device in many of its diesel models to circumvent U.S. emissions standards.

A class-action suit involves one or several persons who sue on behalf of a larger group, referred to as the class. Collectively, the U.S. suits against VW are seeking billions of dollars in damages, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sonnenburg's attorney, Gary Patrick, said the lawsuits will likely be combined if they're certified for class action status. Then, he said, a judicial panel that sits in Washington, D.C., and oversees multi-district litigation will decide where the suits will be heard.

"It will consolidate them more than likely into one or two judicial districts," Patrick said.

The Eastern District of Tennessee, which includes Chattanooga, could be a site, he said.

"This is where the only plant [in the U.S.] is so there's a pretty good chance," Patrick said. But, he added, VW has its U.S. corporate headquarters in Herndon, Va., outside Washington.

Or, the Chattanooga attorney said, if there's a federal judge that the panel believes is more suited to handle the cases, it could assign that person.

Sonnenburg, who himself is an attorney, said he doesn't have to sue VW, but he believes owners need to get the automaker's attention.

"As a group of over 400,000 car owners [affected in the U.S.] and 11 million [worldwide], the group of us need to get VW's attention. The group of us need a result," he said.

Sonnenburg said that with all the regulatory agencies and other parties VW is facing, the individual consumer might get lost without a lawsuit.

"The consumer makes the company," he said. "Without our backing, there's not much of a company."

While VW may be facing class action suits from VW owners in America, that won't be the case in Germany where such actions aren't permissible for consumers, said Jens Brambusch, a journalist with the German business magazine Capital. But shareholders of a company such as VW who contend they've been injured can sue jointly, he said.

Brambusch added that the German people don't blame Americans for the emissions scandal that has embroiled VW, given that the story first emerged when it was discovered the company was sidestepping U.S. standards.

"They're disgusted with what has happened at VW," he said.

Patrick said that since VW has admitted wrongdoing, that could shorten the litigation time for the class action suits.

"If VW does the right thing and admits customers have been harmed, then it shouldn't take years to get though court," he said. "It will take probably a year and longer. It all depends on how VW wants to handle the litigation."

Sonnenburg said his diesel Jetta is "almost the perfect car." He said fuel mileage is high and it has a lot of torque, or the pickup a motorist uses to drive away from a traffic light.

The VW owner said he's interested if a proposed fix to the car's emission problem will impact performance.

"As a group we feel like we lost value even it the company makes it perfect," he said. "The public perception is that it's worth less. The value is down because of the stunt they pulled."

In addition to class action suits, VW is facing a variety of other legal issues. In the U.S., Volkswagen faces investigations by the Justice Department and federal regulators. And more than two dozen state attorneys general have launched their own emissions probe.

The German automaker set aside $7.3 billion to cover fallout from the scandal.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.


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