Harris County Attorney Ryan Files Suit Against Volkswagen for Clean Air Act Violations: Ryan Seeks Penalties of $100 Million

Contact: Terry O’Rourke
Special Assistant County Attorney

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan today filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., for fraudulently manipulating emission controls in their vehicles, thus allowing them to spew dangerous chemicals into the county’s air. 

Ryan is seeking civil penalties in excess of $100 million for the estimated 6,000 diesel Volkswagens sold in the county.  However, the number of tampered vehicles could increase as the county continues its investigation.

“Harris County, with its massive traffic and petrochemical industry, has had difficulty in meeting federal clean air requirements,” said Ryan.  “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.”

“We believe that we are the first governmental agency to file a major suit against Volkswagen and look forward to working with state and local governments that have similar claims,” Ryan explained.  

The NOx emitted by these Volkswagens form ozone when combined with volatile organic compounds (VOC—another vehicle emission) and sunlight.  Even at low levels, ozone can cause health problems, including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion.  It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma and particularly impacts children and older adults.

The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month issued a notice of violation to Volkswagen, saying it had equipped many of its diesel vehicles with software that could detect when emissions tests were being performed.  The software would then provide false results that indicated the vehicle was in compliance with emission standards.  Instead, the vehicles were emitting NOx at an estimated 10 to 40 times EPA compliance standards. 

County Attorney Ryan contends in his lawsuit that Volkswagen violated regulations of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by selling vehicles after they had tampered with the emission control systems.  Each vehicle sold in Harris County constitutes a violation a day.

“The judgment against Volkswagen is more than just punitive,” Ryan said.  “The funds can be used for expanded pollution detection and innovative programs to help Harris County clean up its air and keep our citizens healthy.” 

Ryan filed the suit after it was approved by Harris County Commissioners Court today.  It includes a contingency fee contract with three law firms (names in petition attached). 

Click here to view the petition Harris County v. Volkswagen, et al.