The US Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit Monday against Volkswagen AG for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act by installing illegal devices to impair emission control systems in nearly 600,000 vehicles.
The allegations against Volkswagen, along with its Audi and Porsche units, carry penalties that could cost the German carmaker billions of dollars, a senior department official said.
VW could, in theory, face fines exceeding US$90 billion, or as much as US$37,500 per vehicle per violation of the law, based on the complaint, Reuters reported.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, accuses Volkswagen of four counts of violating the Clean Air Act, including tampering with the emissions control system and failing to report violations.
“We’re alleging that they knew what they were doing, they intentionally violated the law and that the consequences were significant to health,” the official said.
The Justice Department has also been investigating criminal fraud allegations against Volkswagen for misleading US consumers and regulators. Criminal charges would require a higher burden of proof than the civil lawsuit.
The lawsuit reflects the expanding number of allegations against Volkswagen since the company first admitted in September it had installed cheat devices in several of its 2.0 liter diesel vehicle models.
To cheat the emissions controls, Volkswagen installed software that allowed the vehicles to detect when they were being tested on a flatbed.
When the vehicles detected they were actually on the road, the software caused the emissions control systems to underperform or shut down, the government said, allowing the cars to emit dangerous levels of air pollution.
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