Court says Ohio can sue Volkswagen over emissions cheating

Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Associated Press

Columbus, Ohio — The federal Clean Air Act does not preclude Ohio from seeking its own compensation against Volkswagen over the company's efforts to cheat U.S. diesel emissions tests, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

At issue before the court was the 2015 scandal in which the automaker was found to have rigged its vehicles to beat the tests. The company ultimately paid more than $33 billion in fines and settlements.

In the wake of the scandal, the Ohio Attorney General's Office sued the company, alleging its conduct — affecting about 14,000 vehicles sold or leased in Ohio — violated the state's anti-air pollution law.

A trial judge agreed with the company's contention that federal law preempted the state law. A state appeals court sided with state Attorney General Dave Yost, who argued that the federal law doesn't stop Ohio from suing over tampering that occurred after new cars were sold.

Once that sale occurs, the federal law preempting a state lawsuit no longer applies, Justice Pat Fischer wrote for the 6-1 majority.

“Put differently, the Clean Air Act expressly preempts only state and local laws regulating or setting vehicle emissions standards for new motor vehicles and new motor-vehicle engines,” he wrote.

A message was left with the attorney representing Volkswagen in the state Supreme Court case.

Justice Michael Donnelly dissented, writing that allowing the state to sue could undermine the enforcement power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

He added that, “if states and municipalities are permitted to sue motor vehicle manufacturers based on admissions made when settling civil actions with the EPA, manufacturers will be deterred from making such admissions.”