The UK’s first major mass litigation has begun, with about 100,000 motorists seeking redress from Volkswagen over the “dieselgate” emissions scandal.
Lawyers representing owners of VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda cars told the High Court the German firm misled consumers.
In 2015, VW admitted 11 million cars worldwide – including 1.2 million in the UK – were fitted with software that cut emission readings in tests.
But it denies deceiving regulators, despite rulings against it elsewhere.
The carmaker also says that, whatever the merits of the case, the UK drivers seeking compensation faced no losses.
Lawyers for the British claimants say VW installed software that was designed to detect when vehicles were being tested and switch engines to a cleaner mode in an attempt to “cheat clean air laws”.
It meant the vehicles were emitting up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen dioxide when out on the road.
Volkswagen’s admission that the software flattered emissions has led to a flurry of legal action worldwide. VW has been forced to pay out more than €30bn (£26bn) in fines, recall costs and civil settlements, while current and former senior employees are facing criminal charges in Germany.
The English litigation was filed back in 2016, but has now reached what lawyers have called “a decisive court battle”.
At a two-week preliminary hearing in London, Mr Justice Waksman will be asked to rule on whether the software installed in the cars was a “defeat device” under EU regulations.
The judge will also be asked to determine whether the High Court is bound by the German transport regulator’s finding that the software installed was a defeat device.
Gareth Pope, head of group litigation at Slater and Gordon, which represents more than 70,000 claimants, said: “This trial will establish once and for all whether VW installed prohibited ‘defeat devices’ in affected vehicles and is a significant milestone in our clients’ attempts to hold VW accountable in the UK.
“This is a decisive point for VW. For years, the carmaker has deceived its customers, marketing cars as complying with emissions standards while all the time knowing they were emitting many times more than the allowed level of toxic pollutants, perpetrating an environmental and health scandal.
“VW has had plenty of opportunity to come clean, make amends and move on from this highly damaging episode.
“But instead it’s chosen to spend millions of pounds denying the claims our clients have been forced to bring against it rather than paying that to their own customers in compensation.”
One of the claimants, Brian Levine – who bought two affected Volkswagens – told the Press Association: “VW’s tactics have been to delay and prevaricate – anything but face a day when it would have to explain what this software did. Well, that day has finally come.
“More than four years after the emissions scandal broke, the tens of thousands of customers will be able to hold VW to account in a British court of law and expose its efforts to cheat us.”
A VW spokeswoman said the company would “defend robustly its position in the High Court”.
He added: “It remains Volkswagen Group’s case that the claimants did not suffer any loss at all and that the affected vehicles did not contain a prohibited defeat device. The hearing will not affect any questions of liability or loss.”
Analysis: By Simon Gompertz, personal finance correspondent
Buying a car is one of the big financial decisions we make. We pay a hefty price for a brand we trust and expect the specifications to be as promised.
But VW argues that the drivers claiming they were fooled by a defeat device will not qualify for compensation whatever the merits of their case, because they haven’t suffered a loss.
And VW denies having a defeat device, anyway, despite findings against the carmaker in other countries.
Waiting for a result from this case will feel like being trapped in the mother of all traffic jams. Lawyers involved are expecting the whole process could take two to three years.