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Volkswagen emissions cheating: VW owners mulling trial as deadline looms

Lawyers representing thousands of diesel Volkswagen owners are asking a judge for repairs and compensation if the government and the company fail to agree on a fix for vehicles designed to circumvent clean-air laws.

Ina Fassbender/Reuters/File
A traffic light shows red next to the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, in this November 2015 file photo.

A showdown looms Thursday in the latest chapter of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, as a hearing is due to take place before Senior US District Court Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco.

Lawyers representing thousands of VW owners impacted by the company's admission last September that it had installed emissions-cheating software on nearly 600,000 vehicles in the United States alone are seeking compensation and repairs at the hearing, unless an accommodation can be reached in advance.

In a parallel part of the tale, VW is reported to be offering steep discounts in its home market of Germany, trying to entice drivers in the used car market to choose its vehicles over those of rivals.

"I think a lot depends on what progress has been made or whether the judge is satisfied, or whether he moves on to the proposals that the plaintiffs are offering," Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told the Associated Press, referring to the San Francisco court case.

In a request submitted by the plaintiffs' lawyers, the call is either for an expedited hearing or a trial before the judge to seek "equitable relief," which would begin in July. Otherwise, they would like to see a full trial, including punitive damages, to take place in a similar timeframe.

For its part, VW considers either one – a hearing or a trial – to be inappropriate, and indeed unnecessary. The company says it has made progress towards both a fix and compensation, perhaps to be revealed on Thursday.

The Justice Department has sued VW on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, and it declined to offer comment on the request for a trial until it had seen the details as to what claims and issues would be tried.

Meanwhile, across the pond, pressure on VW in its heartland is no less forgiving. The day after the San Francisco hearing, VW's supervisory board will hold a meeting in Germany to consider the findings of an independent probe implemented by Jones Day, a US law firm.

While rumors swirl that the investigation has so far yielded close to nothing, the automaker's travails in Europe continue to weigh it down, even though it is perhaps closer there than anywhere to bringing its vehicles into compliance, with 8.5 million having been recalled.

As Christiaan Hetzner writes in Automotive News, Volkswagen has struggled to move beyond this crisis. With three major deadlines looming this month, management must be hoping that some forward progress can be seen.

"For the past six months, Volkswagen executives have been stuck in a never-ending loop, a kind of industry purgatory, in which management has been permanently on the backfoot," writes Mr. Hetzner. "They must try to please regulators, respond to legal allegations and address constant media speculation."

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