Errant car manufacturer Volkswagen could face corporate manslaughter charges in the United States if its deliberate rigging of vehicle emission tests can be linked to pollution deaths by road users there.
A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston estimates 53,000 premature deaths every year in the US can be attributed to air-pollutant emissions from “road transportation” sources.
While some observers believe such charges are unlikely, US authorities have shown their keenness to prosecute major corporations to the fullest extent of the law, among them BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 which pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Last month, the former CEO and owner of the Peanut Corporation of America was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his part in a salmonella outbreak that led to the deaths of nine people across the US. The contamination at the company’s now-closed plant in Blakely in Georgia had resulted in one of the largest food recalls in US history.
The former CEO, Stewart Parnell, was convicted on federal conspiracy charges. His brother was sentenced to 20 years on the same charges.
However, car manufacturers in the US have been treated more leniently.
General Motors settled with the Justice Department for $900 million (€800m) — and no criminal charges — for the cover-up of a faulty ignition switch design that resulted in 124 deaths.
VW is already facing serious criminal charges in Germany and the United States for fraud and breaches of air pollution laws.
German prosecutors say they are considering launching a criminal investigation into the scandal and are examining legal claims that have already been filed by private individuals against VW.
The company has hired Kirkland & Ellis, the US law firm which defended BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where 11 people were killed, along with wildlife, habitats and livelihoods.
“One of the issues to be considered when criminal charges are brought is that of ‘willful blindness’,” said air pollution expert John Sodeau, professor of physical chemistry and director of the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry at University College Cork.
“It is known air pollution leads to premature deaths. The VW corporation have admitted to ‘gaming’ test results and, while their actions would not be murder they are very serious and concern corporate responsibility showing willful blindness.
“The real worry is that we don’t know if other car manufacturers have also been engaged in similar practices.”
In January 2013, a US federal judge in New Orleans accepted an agreement for BP to plead guilty to manslaughter and other charges and pay a record fine of $4bn relating to the 2010 oil spill.
The agreement allowed a unit of the London-based oil giant to plead guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter. The company also entered a guilty plea to one felony count of obstruction of Congress and two environmental misdemeanors.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen announced plans yesterday to refit up to 11 million vehicles and overhaul its namesake brand following the scandal.
New chief executive Matthias Mueller said Europe’s biggest car manufacturer would ask customers “in the next few days” to have diesel vehicles that contained illegal software refitted, which some analysts have said could cost over $6.5bn.
The company is under huge pressure to address the worst business crisis in its 78-year history which has wiped more than a third off its market value, sent shock waves through the global car market and could harm Germany’s economy.
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