The global Volkswagen emissions scandal that has hit around 100,000 affected Australian motorists will face trial today, as the Maurice Blackburn-led class action against the international and local arms of the motoring giant begins.
After two years of pre-trial battles, the company has continued to belie its public apologies about one of the biggest corporate scandals in motoring history, by refusing to reveal exactly what went on inside the Volkswagen group at a time it decided to con the world with emissions test cheating software.
The VW trial is the first stage in a two-part trial aimed at imposing some real accountability on these manufacturers which have so far refused to offer any compensation or acknowledgement of wrongdoing to duped Australian customers.
This stage one trial will determine some preliminary questions including whether the cheating software technology the company has admitted to installing in affected diesel vehicles is a prohibited ‘defeat device’ under Australian law. The case is about two fundamental things according to Class Action Principal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Jason Geisker.
“Motorists want the VW group to admit to their wrongdoing, and motorists understandably expect to be appropriately compensated by the companies for their losses as a result,” Mr Geisker said.
Presiding Judge, Justice Lindsay Foster, has previously lost patience with Volkswagen’s conduct in the case’s court hearings, accusing the company of treating Australia as a “backwater” due to its ongoing delay tactics.
Mr Geisker said it was clear that VW has continued to show a contemptuous disregard towards Australian motorists in the 2½ years since the global giant had been exposed as having deceived customers for years about its so-called clean, green, high-performance diesel car credentials.
“The company wants to regain consumer trust following this massive scandal, but its ongoing refusal to acknowledge legal responsibility for its wrongdoing in this country simply lacks credibility,” he said.
“VW happily profited for many years off the back of their ‘eco-friendly’ diesel deception yet, ever since the truth was finally exposed, they have refused to fess up here and take responsibility for peoples’ losses.
“What is worse - those same companies choose to spend nearly $30B appeasing consumers and regulators in the US and Canada for this scandal and yet, at the same time, they treat Australians as mugs, deny everything and refuse any compensation.
“The sad truth is that VW prefers to spend vast amounts of time and money defending Australian Court proceedings and attempting to delay the inevitable, rather than offering any sort of meaningful compensation package to Australian motorists.”
Lead plaintiff for the VW class action, Alister Dalton, said the more he has seen and experienced the conduct of the car giant, the more disgusted he becomes.
“I’ve driven and bought Volkswagens my entire life, but the way they’ve tricked us and the way they’ve treated us since this came to light has been beyond bad – it is the worst customer relations management one could imagine,” Mr Dalton said.
The class action also covers claims against the European and local subsidiaries of Audi and Skoda for the same issues. Skoda lead plaintiff Stephen Rowe said the company should have done the right thing by the motorists it has deceived a long time ago.
“Despite its advertising and publicity efforts, the manufacturer isn’t looking to do anything meaningful to take care of customers like me – there is no genuine intent to remedy what is one of the worst global scandals in history,” Mr Rowe said.
“Therefore, this is what we have to do in order to stand up and make VW take notice and fix things once and for all. We can’t just let them bulldoze over us and cover up what they’ve done and move on. There needs to be accountability.”
Lead plaintiff in the Audi proceeding, Robyn Richardson, said the litany of horror stories about customer harassment by the company and its refusal to resolve the issue properly is an alarming pattern of behaviour.
“It’s a farcical position the company is taking, saying they have a technical solution for a problem they caused but in the same breath denying that a problem exists – they’re really treating Australian customers with contempt,” Ms Richardson said.
“Furthermore, instead of resolving the issue adequately, they’re now pressuring people to accept more software changes without knowing what the impact will be on performance – it is appalling behaviour.”
Mr Geisker said the class actions were the best way for Australians to demand better from Volkswagen – and affected vehicle owners seem to agree, with around 97% of victims actively choosing to remain in the class actions late last year in response to a formal Court notice providing an opportunity for victims to opt out of these class actions.
“We are fortunate in Australia that where gross misconduct does impact on sections of our community we have collective access to justice via our court and class actions system, which is an efficient way to keep wrongdoers properly accountable for their transgressions,” he said.