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Hillsborough to join in class action suit over Volkswagen emissions

Hillsborough County plans to join hundreds of other plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against German auto maker Volkswagen, which has admitted installing devices that help vehicles break air emission rules.

County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to file a federal lawsuit against Volkswagen for violating the county’s mobile source air emission rule. The action likely will be rolled into a class-action suit now underway in the federal Northern District of California in San Francisco.

Volkswagen has admitted installing software in VW and Audi diesel vehicles that detect when a car’s emissions are being tested. The so-called “defeat device” was put in 11 million vehicles worldwide and about 600,000 in the United States.

Volkswagen officials could not be reached for comment.

The vehicles with the software emit much higher volumes of pollutants than allowed under air emission rules set forth by the county’s Environmental Protection Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said EPC general counsel Rich Tschantz.

“There are vehicles that started to have this equipment on them as far back as 2009,” Tschantz said. “These vehicles emit anywhere from 10 to 40 times the NOx emissions that are allowed by the EPA.” NOx stands for nitrogen oxides, indirect greenhouse gases that contribute to ozone pollution.

Lawyers from two local firms were responsible for bringing the violation of the EPC mobile emission rule to the county’s attention. The rule’s language speaks specifically about tampering with a vehicle’s air emission control system.

“Fortunately, the EPC has a clear law that is perfectly on point that penalizes anyone for tampering with a vehicle’s emission system, and the law provides a clear penalty,” Truett Gardner, one of the lawyers who will handle the lawsuit, said in a written statement.

Hillsborough is the only county in Florida that has such an emission rule, Tschantz said. The penalty prescribed for violating the rule is a fine of up to $5,000 per vehicle per day. EPC officials believe 1,187 cars in the county have been violating county emission rules because of the software.

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“A case could be brought and a case should be brought here due to the action of this company being so egregious and how much emissions are being put into the atmosphere here in Hillsborough County on a daily basis,” Tschantz said.

Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort will represent the county in the lawsuit, along with another Tampa firm, Thomas Young. Commissioners also approved hiring the Beasley Allen firm of Montgomery, Alabama. Beasley Allen is one of 19 law firms chosen by a steering committee consolidating the lawsuits in San Francisco.

The three firms will be paid 33.3 percent of any amount awarded the county. If the county gets no money, neither do the lawyers.

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U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco is overseeing more than 500 lawsuits in what is known as multi-district litigation, or MDL. Breyer has been quoted as saying the Volkswagen case is different than most MDLs because the automaker has admitted certain facts, and because of the large number of consumers who are having problems with their VW or Audi vehicles. Those factors could mean a quick settlement, according to the judge.

Breyer picked former FBI director Robert Mueller to help move Volkswagen and the plaintiffs toward a settlement.

So far, five states — Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico, West Virginia and New Jersey — have filed suit against Volkswagen, along with Harris County, Texas. The car company is also negotiating with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California.

“This is probably one of the largest class-action cases ever in the United States,” Tschantz said.

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