VW civil suits won’t be heard in Detroit

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A panel of judges on Tuesday chose the federal court in San Francisco to oversee nearly 500 civil lawsuits filed against Volkswagen AG by vehicle dealers and owners over the automaker’s emissions-cheating scandal. The decision bypassed Detroit, where at least 50 cases are pending in federal court, and where VW had its headquarters from 1991 to 2008.

The Detroit venue was supported by VW, the federal government and several plaintiffs who noted the Eastern District of Michigan is where Environmental Protection Agency has emissions-testing facilities and where VW’s Engineering and Environmental Office is located. Advocates also had pointed to Metro Detroit’s concentration of automotive engineering experts and institutions.

The panel noted that California has the most affected vehicles and dealer and is where “significant” testing of affected vehicles occurred. It is home base for the California Air Resources Board, which played an “important initial role” in investigating and revealing VW’s use of software-based “defeat devices” in more than 482,000 diesel cars in the United States manufactured since 2009.

“Relevant documents and witnesses may be found in both the Northern District and throughout California, given the role played by the California Air Resources Board,” the panel wrote.

Plaintiffs have filed 101 of the pending class-action suits in California, including 30 in the Northern District of California, which also is where the first case was filed.

The panel, which heard oral arguments on the matter last week in New Orleans, decides when and where to centralize civil cases pending in federal courts around the country involving similar questions of fact. Those cases are then transferred and consolidated for pretrial proceedings to avoid unnecessary duplication of documents production and resources, and to avoid conflicting rulings on pretrial matters.

The panel assigned the cases to Judge Charles R. Breyer in California’s Northern District, citing his expertise in complex multidistrict dockets, “some of which involve numerous international defendants.”

The law firm Hagens Berman, which filed the first case against VW in San Francisco, issued a statement applauding the panel’s decision and calling Breyer a “highly capable, experienced and fair judge.”

Volkswagen said in a statement, “We have received the order of the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, and we will vigorously defend the Company in these cases.”

The flurry of cases followed the Sept. 18 announcement of air-quality violations by the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board. Software in the cars allowed the cars to pass emissions testing in laboratory settings, but then turned off anti-pollution devices when the cars were on the open road.

Various parties had argued for 28 different venues across the nation. Other potential venues included Texas, Ohio, New York and Georgia.

The judges concluded, “While all of these districts may yield some or even much discovery, no single district possesses a paramount factual connection to these cases.”

They noted that potential witnesses and evidence from VW are probably located in Germany.