SAN FRANCISCO -- The international scandal over Volkswagen's cheating on emissions controls in its diesel engines has already produced a predictable result -- one of the most massive legal assaults in U.S. history.
Now dozens of class-action lawsuits filed nationwide on behalf of hundreds of thousands of angry Volkswagen owners, dealers and others have been centralized in San Francisco federal court, where the scramble is on to hold the German automaker accountable in a case with billions of dollars at stake.
The lawsuits center on the fact that Volkswagen rigged the emissions controls in its diesel engines to evade strict air pollution standards in places like California. The company is accused of deliberately cutting corners on cars touted for their fuel efficiency and air quality emissions, engineering the diesel engines to essentially conceal the fact they were omitting as much as 40 times allowable levels of pollutants.
David Fiol, a San Francisco lawyer and self-described "dedicated environmentalist," was the prototypical customer Volkswagen sought in marketing the eco-friendly features of its diesel engine cars. By the time Fiol decided to pull the trigger on a 2012 Jetta sport wagon for his wife, a former staffer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he believed he'd picked the type of car that could help "save the planet."
But Fiol bought one of hundreds of thousands of cars caught up in the scandal -- and now he's gone from prototypical Volkswagen customer to the lead plaintiff in the first of what has become dozens of class-action lawsuits that have landed in court.
"A car is a statement of who you are," said Fiol, who enlisted Seattle class-action lawyer Steve Berman to take his case last September. "This car was a statement that you are smart and care about the planet. But it turns out we were a bunch of dupes who are damaging the planet."
In what has already evolved into a sprawling court battle filled with legal stars, all of the cases against Volkswagen have been assigned by a special national panel to San Francisco U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, a veteran of some of the Bay Area's most high-profile cases and brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
The U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against Volkswagen, filed last month in Detroit, also has been shifted to Breyer's control, along with dozens of fraud actions filed by state attorneys general. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is investigating Volkswagen's conduct under the state's strict air regulations, and any action she files is expected to land in Breyer's court.
With Volkswagen having already admitted wrongdoing publicly, legal experts do not expect the cases to go to trial. In fact, Breyer's focus already has shifted to finding a resolution -- he has appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee settlement efforts.
But lawyers involved in the case say settlement will be no easy task. U.S. owners of an estimated 600,000 Volkswagen cars in model years 2009 to 2015 want their vehicles either fixed or replaced, and to be compensated for the fact their cars are spewing excessive amounts of pollution into the air when they were billed as among the most eco-friendly on the market.
"The problem is that saying 'We were liable,' or 'We screwed up,' doesn't solve the problem," said San Francisco lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser, court-appointed head of a 21-member committee of lawyers who assembled the class actions. "Saying we screwed up does not fix the vehicle."
Peninsula lawyer Frank Pitre, who represents two Stanford University professors who bought a tainted 2013 Volkswagen Passat, likens the case to the lawsuits against PG&E over the 2010 pipeline explosion that leveled a San Bruno neighborhood, saying a key is to unearth how Volkswagen went about deceiving the public -- hoping to hold top management responsible and perhaps exposing the company to greater damages and restaints on future business practices.
"This is coming in from all sides," Pitre said. "I'm not sure we have our arms around all of the cases."
Consumer advocates are hopeful the case will provide an adequate remedy for the Volkswagen car owners, but worry too much money might land in the pockets of lawyers, a common concern in class-action litigation. "Unfortunately, there is going to be a windfall for the lawyers," said Theodore Frank of the Center for Class Action Fairness.
The two lead lawyers for Volkswagen did not respond to requests for comment. But Volkswagen has pledged to fix the problem, which extends to an estimated 11 million vehicles worldwide, and has enlisted Kenneth Feinberg, who supervised the 9/11 victim compensation fund, to handle the task for the automaker's aggrieved customers.
Compensation, however, remains a tricky question, according to legal experts.
"The remedy question remains difficult because there appears to be no way that VW can give people the cars that it said it sold them -- fix the pollution problem and you compromise performance and/or economy," said Gregory Keating, a USC law professor. "So what should VW do? Buy them back? Fix and pay money damages for loss of value? What's the next-best thing to do?"
Fiol, meanwhile, is frustrated by the experience. He and his wife still drive the car, as they have no choice, but try to conserve on mileage to limit the environmental damage.
"We felt we were duped and felt like we turned into criminals ourselves," Fiol said. "We'd just like to have the car fixed."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.