In many cases, the vehicles being sold in the United States with so-called “defeat devices” sent as much as 40 times the pollutants into the air as allowed under U.S. law, the Justice Department said.
"Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust [and] endanger public health," particularly by emitting pollutants linked with asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses into the atmosphere, the head of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, Assistant Attorney General John Cruden, said in a statement.
He vowed to seek "all appropriate remedies."
The federal civil complaint was filed in Detroit, where a senior Justice Department official said much of the "important activity has occurred." The Justice Department expects to "tag along" with hundreds of private class-action lawsuits from across the country whose pretrial motions are currently being overseen by a federal judge in San Francisco.
As outlined by the Justice Department suit, Volkswagen allegedly equipped certain 2.0 liter vehicles with software that detects when the car is being tested for EPA compliance and then turns on "full emissions controls." That produces emissions during testing that are "way different" from actual on-the-road emissions, according to the Justice Department official.
The Justice Department alleges similar deception in certain 3.0 liter vehicles. The lawsuit filed today doesn't mean criminal charges may not be filed later, according to the Justice Department official.
In a statement responding to the new lawsuit, Volkswagen noted the allegations by the Justice Department "have been the subject of EPA investigations and allege violations of the same provisions of the Clean Air Act as were noted in the EPA’s September 18 and November 2 Notices of Violation."
"Volkswagen will continue to work cooperatively with the EPA on developing remedies to bring the ... vehicles into full compliance with regulations as soon as possible," the Volkswagen statement said. The car company is also working "to develop an independent, fair and swift process for resolving private consumer claims relating to these issues," the statement added.