Judge denies effort to stop VW diesel lawsuit filed by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has won a major victory in the County’s lawsuit against Volkswagen, preventing federal law from stopping state and county claims.

Harris County and the State of Texas can proceed with their case against Volkswagen for violating air emissions because a judge has determined that the company’s recall of autos to change emission control devices is not preempted by federal law.

Volkswagen claimed the state and county could not continue the case involving tampering with emission control devices on its diesel-fueled cars, because federal – and not state -- law prevailed. However, state District Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd District Court in Austin signed an order Wednesday finding that because the recalled vehicles were already on Texas roads, the state is not pre-empted by the federal government in enforcing environmental laws.

“The court recognized that Volkswagen’s recall of tampering equipment on already-sold vehicles was a local responsibility and not the federal government’s,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said, “Therefore, the case filed by Harris County can proceed.”

“This is an important ruling that reaffirms the right of state and local governments to enforce their own environmental laws,” said Richard Mithoff, lead counsel for Harris County in the litigation.

In 2015, Harris County filed suit against Volkswagen, Audi and their affiliates for violating Texas emissions standards and creating a public hazard for citizens of Harris County who came into contact with the vehicles emitting noxious fumes.

Harris County officials estimate that 4,800 diesel cars were circulating on local roadways and produced harmful emissions. These vehicles were manufactured between 2009 and 2015 and were installed with software that could circumvent emissions control technology. The company later recalled vehicles which were already in use and replaced -- at no charge to consumers – new software, which the company said would improve emissions. However, in depositions, company officials admitted “the effect of these two different changes to the software would be to enhance the ability of the car to have the higher NOx (nitrous oxides) emissions while it was on the road.”

Some harmful vehicle emissions, nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds create ozone when they are exposed to sunlight. Dangerous ozone levels have been recorded in Harris County, which can create or exacerbate chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. The county’s lawsuit alleges that Volkswagen emissions further imperiled the public by brazenly violating emissions requirements.

“Volkswagen’s actions undermined Harris County’s efforts to keep our air clean and our residents healthy,” said County Attorney Ryan.  “They owe restitution to Harris County for their reprehensible actions.”

Click here to read the Court’s Order.