The “first” local government action against the carmaker surely won’t be the last.
Volkswagen is about to learn just what it means to mess with Texas. Harris County, home to Houston, is suing the car giant for more than $100 million in what officials are calling the “first” local government suit against VW following its emissions scandal. Here’s county attorney Vince Ryan, via a press release from his office:
“These tampered cars were emitting nitrogen oxides, or NOx, every day well in excess of legal limits. Volkswagen’s deceitful acts have damaged the county’s ability to improve air quality, reach clean air attainment status and protect our citizens.”
The suit alleges that VW violated seven environmental-related health and safety codes by rigging its diesel cars to avoid emissions standards, including laws related to “unauthorized air emissions” and “anti-tampering” rules. Harris County is an EPA “non-attainment” zone for ozone emissions, a designation reserved for areas that don’t meet federal environmental standards. The NOx emissions produced by tampered VW diesels are known to contribute to ozone formation; from the petition:
Harris County has long been plagued with poor air quality due to emissions from various sources, ranging from industrial to vehicular traffic. Harris County is designated as nonattainment for ozone, which even at low levels can cause health impacts, including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. Ozone and particulate matter are associated with increased incidence of illness and premature mortality.
Officials submit that at least 6,000 fraudulent diesel VW’s were sold in Harris County between 2009, when the company is thought to have installed its emissions “defeat devices,” and the end of August 2015. Violators of Texas health and safety codes are subject to penalties ranging from $50 to $25,000 a day. The suit considers each day a separate violation.
It’s not clear how Harris County reached its estimate of $100 million in damages. The suit represents 2,434 total days of violations: 365 days a year from 2009 to 2014, plus a leap day in 2012 and 243 days in 2015. Using that figure, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that even at the low-end range of $50 fines, Harris would be poised to recoup $730.2 million for all 6,000 vehicles (or $121,700 a car). At $25,000 a day, the fines would come to nearly $61 million for a single offending VW, and a whopping $365 billion for the group.
Whatever the numerical details, VW is in line for a big bill. The lawyers retained by Harris County include Richard Mithoff, whose firm reportedly settled with tobacco companies back in 1998 for $2.2 billion in health care costs. VW has set aside some $7.3 billion to deal with the aftermath of its scandal—a figure that now feels low. While Harris County might be the first to bring a local suit against the car maker, it surely won’t be the last.