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Maryland sues Volkswagen for dirty diesel deception

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles announce the state's lawsuit against Volkswagen AG and its affiliates for violations of state environmental laws in connection with diesel automobiles sold with “defeat devices” designed to conceal illegal amounts of emissions. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles announce the state’s lawsuit against Volkswagen AG and its affiliates for violations of state environmental laws in connection with diesel automobiles sold with “defeat devices” designed to conceal illegal amounts of emissions. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland will seek billions of dollars in penalties from automaker Volkswagen AG for using “defeat devices” to conceal illegal amounts of emissions produced by thousands of vehicles purported to have “clean diesel” technology, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced Tuesday.

The lawsuit, which seeks a civil penalty of $25,000 for each day of each violation of state law, alleges Volkswagen orchestrated a massive cover-up when it was discovered their clean diesel vehicles manufactured between 2008 and 2015 did not perform as desired.

“You cannot pollute our air and hurt our citizens and expect you’re going to get a slap on the wrist,” Frosh said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “You’re going to pay the piper. We want to punish Volkswagen for the fraud that it’s committed and we want to deter other companies from trying to do the same thing.”

Attorneys general from Maryland, New York and Massachusetts all announced lawsuits Tuesday after months of settlement negotiations with Volkswagen over environmental penalties broke down.

In a statement, Volkswagen says it is “regrettable” that states are suing while it is in talks with authorities about a national resolution over the emissions scandal. The automaker reached a series of state and federal settlements stemming from consumer class-action lawsuits last month. The company will pay more than $10 billion to consumers who bought or leased affected car models, more than 16,000 of which are registered in Maryland.

Frosh said the state’s lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court for violations of the Maryland Clean Air Act and various other laws, stands separately.

“You cannot flout our laws and get away with a slap on the wrist,” he said.

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, who joined Frosh in announcing the lawsuit, said Volkswagen’s action jeopardize the progress the state has made in cutting down pollution through its environmental laws.

“The air Marylanders now breathe is the cleanest it’s been in decades, and we will not stand for Volkswagen’s dirty tactics that undercut our environmental progress,” he said in a prepared statement.

Pattern of deception

Volkswagen admitted to the fraud last September after West Virginia University researchers alerted authorities in 2014 that the diesel cars emitted more nitrogen oxides when on the road than during emissions testing.

Company officials initially claimed the decision to install the devices was made by a couple of software engineers, but it was later learned dozens of employees, executives and officers were allegedly involved, according to the complaint.

Volkswagen tried to cover up the problems with emissions and failed to disclose the defeat devices, instead using six versions over the years, Frosh said.

“The decision to install the defeat devices was not an accident,” he said. “It was a willful and systematic scheme.”

As a result, consumers were told they were getting “clean” automobiles that combined fuel efficiency, high performance and low emissions, but instead they were driving vehicles emitting pollutants at up to 40 times the allowable limits, according to the complaint.

Internal communications between executives and engineers revealed conversations about the defeat devices, according to the complaint, including penalties for violations of the federal Clean Air Act and the failure of regulators to levy anything close to the maximum penalties.

“You cannot foul our air and pollute our Chesapeake Bay and expect that it will have no consequences, no effect whatsoever, on your share price,” Frosh said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.