Barbara Bozman-Moss and her husband have long embraced cleaner-burning and fuel-efficient cars, starting with the purchase of their first hybrid in 2001.
When the Healdsburg couple bought a 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen with a “clean diesel” engine, they believed they were carrying on the tradition of making eco-conscious choices. In fact, they unwittingly had done the opposite.
The couple was stunned by Volkswagen’s admission that it installed software in 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide to deceive emissions tests. Drivers who thought they were doing their part to help stave off pollution instead have been emitting 10 to 40 times the legal limit of nitrous oxides with every turn of the key.
“Every time I get in it I cringe,” Bozman-Moss, an attorney transitioning to nonprofit work, said of the silver Jetta, which is her main mode of transportation. “It’s awful.”
The couple and another Sonoma County Volkswagen diesel owner are suing the German car company and the Southern California dealer who sold them the vehicles for fraud and breach of contract. The suit seeks class-action status representing all California drivers of one of the affected diesels, a number estimated at about 55,000 vehicles.
The lawsuit, filed in Marin County Superior Court by Santa Rosa attorney Patrick Emery, is part of a wave of litigation aimed at Volkswagen and dealers over “smog-gate.”
Diesel engines, which use highly compressed hot air to ignite fuel rather than relying on a spark plug in gasoline engines, long suffered bad reputations for being polluters. The nitrous oxides emitted by diesel engines in greater concentrations than gasoline versions have been blamed for a range of environmental and health ills.
Volkswagen claimed to have solved that problem with its “clean diesel” technology. As noted by the lawsuit, the company and dealers marketed the vehicles as the “Official Pace Car of the Environment.” With the slogan, “Cake. Eating it too,” the car company suggested drivers could have it all: outstanding fuel mileage, peppy performance and the satisfaction that comes with being eco-friendly.
It turned out to be a lie.
Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen AG’s CEO, expressed regret for the deceit in a Sept. 20 statement, saying the company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public.” He resigned from the company days later.
The company also admitted the deception to the California Air Resources Board, prompting the agency to launch an enforcement investigation that encompasses all light-duty vehicles manufactured by Volkswagen and Audi from 2009 to 2015 that were equipped with 2.0 liter clean diesel engines.
Dozens of law firms across the country are jockeying for the right to represent Volkswagen drivers in class-action litigation against the car company and dealers.
Emery, the Santa Rosa attorney, is taking a different tact by seeking to represent just California drivers under the state’s consumer protection and environmental laws. Emery’s co-counsel is Richard Frank, one of the foremost authorities on California environmental regulations.
Emery said he does not believe California’s Volkswagen dealers were aware of the carmaker’s deception. But he said dealers share in the responsibility because they advertised and sold the vehicles.
“Simply put, it’s a gross case of false advertising,” Emery said.
Pacific Volkswagen near Torrance and owner Michael Sullivan — the “LAcarGUY” — are included as defendants in the lawsuit. Bozman-Moss and the other plaintiff in the case purchased their vehicles from the dealership because they couldn’t find what they wanted closer to home.