Bill Sonnenburg sits in the driver’s seat of his 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, his eyes on the open road ahead of him. Seeing the opportunity, he hits the accelerator. The engine growls, and the car picks up velocity quickly and with surprising ease, making the needle on the speedometer jump from zero to 40 in less than three seconds. It then drops as Sonnenburg slowly brings his car to a stop, a wave of satisfaction washing over his face. One thing is clear:
Sonnenburg likes his Jetta.
He’s not a hot-rodder, though, he’s a retired lawyer, so he appreciates the car’s impressive gas mileage (a mere 42 miles per gallon on average) more than its oomph. Still, when he’s climbing Signal Mountain Road to return home, he’s grateful for the oomph.
“It has good fuel economy,” Sonnenburg says. “And it has a peppy engine, which makes it fun. You wouldn’t expect that much pick up from any other diesel-fueled car.”
Sonnenburg has enjoyed his Jetta since buying it new. So when he learned that VW equipped the car and seven other “TDI” (turbocharged direct injection) vehicles with a computer device that tricks emissions tests into thinking the automobile is producing clear air when it’s not, he was amazed.
“I couldn’t believe they had gone that long without being discovered,” he said. “But I was mostly concerned about how we’re going to get out of the fix we’re in.”
Rather than wait for VW to propose a solution, Sonnenburg joined about 60 other VW owners in launching a class action complaint against Volkswagen Group of America. The Chattanooga-based law firm of Patrick, Beard, Schulman & Jacoway filed the lawsuit in federal court soon after VW announced the existence of the “defeat device,” which scientists at West Virginia University discovered during their own emissions tests.
The complaint is based on VW’s alleged violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and similar laws in Georgia. “The TCPA prohibits unfair or deceptive acts, and protects consumers,” says Ellie M. Hill, an attorney with Patrick Beard. “VW marketed the TDI vehicles as having a clean engine when they did not. VW also represented the vehicles as meeting certain standards when they did not.”
As the owner of a vehicle with a “defeat device,” Sonnenburg and his fellow plaintiffs have several questions. A big one is related to how emissions controls would affect the performance of their vehicles. “Will my car lose its peppiness, sportiness, and fuel economy?” Sonnenburg asks. “I caught [Volkswagen Group of America President and CEO Michael Horn] testifying to Congress, and he said he thinks these engines would still meet the window sticker mileage. But that’s a significant decrease from what they’re actually doing.”
The plaintiffs in the case are also concerned about the negative impact their vehicles are having on the environment. “There are 482,000 of these on roads in the U.S., and 11 million of these engines out there worldwide,” Sonnenburg says. “One person might think their car isn’t doing any harm, but with 11 million of these cars emitting 20 to 40 times the allowable emissions, then you’re talking about something significant.”
Sonnenburg says he’s unable to turn a blind eye to the pollution his car is producing – even though he can legally still drive it and pass the emissions test. “If I were to take my vehicle to an emissions test today, it would pass because it still has the device,” Sonnenburg says. “But I know it’s polluting the air, and everyone who’s following this lawsuit knows it’s polluting their air, so should I allow it to pass the emissions test and reregister it? That’s a dilemma.”
The plaintiffs in the case are also worried about damages, which include how the news of the defeat device and the implementation of emissions controls will affect the resale value of their cars. “Could I in good faith sell my car?” Sonnenburg asks. “I would have to disclose the issue to the potential buyer, and he would have to buy it without knowing what’s going to happen to it.”
All of that said, Sonnenburg says the lawsuit is not about money, but about getting an appropriate result for the owners of the vehicles that is not detrimental to the automaker. “Chattanooga loves VW. We have a lot of money invested in the company, and we want to see it do well,” Sonnenburg says.
Even if VW does adjust its TDI vehicles and compensate the owners, Sonnenburg says he’ll never feel the same about his car. “I’m not going to be happy with a car that doesn’t perform as well as it does now,” he says.
Patrick Beard is not the only law firm to have filed a lawsuit against VW. Nearly a dozen similar suits have been filed in East Tennessee alone, while hundreds have been filed across the U.S. All are seeking class action certification, says Hill. A multi-district litigation panel will convene in New Orleans in December to decide whether or not to consolidate the litigation and, if necessary, select a location for the trial.
Hill not only believes the judges on the panel will grant the lawsuits class action status, she says Chattanooga would be the appropriate location for the trial. Attorney Gary R. Patrick, managing partner of Patrick Beard, is planning to travel to New Orleans to convince the panel of the same.
“The facility is here,” Hill said. “Also, part of the emissions control system is installed here, so we think there are people here that know about those devices being installed on the vehicles.”
Even though Volkswagen Group of America is headquartered in Herndon, Va., Hill says the company employs far more people in Chattanooga.
Also, of all of the vehicles affected, only the Passat is manufactured in the U.S., meaning it’s made in Chattanooga. “One-fifth of the affected vehicles in the U.S. were manufactured here, which is a significant connection,” Hill says.
If the case is tried in Chattanooga, Senior United States District Judge Curtis Collier will preside.
Sonnenburg, who purchased his first VW in 1961 and owned two others before buying his Jetta, simply wants the best for everyone involved. “I have a lot of good history with Volkswagen. The Jetta alone has been one of my favorite cars,” he says. “So while we want to be taken care of, this is about having a good result not just for the consumers but for VW as well.”
To contact Patrick Beard about being added to its class action complaint against Volkswagen Group of America, call the firm at (423) 756-7117.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.