WASHINGTON -- The U.S. unit of Volkswagen Group asked a judge to delay several court trials it is facing over excess emissions because it fears "inflammatory" comments made by a lawyer representing car owners in a recent TV documentary will prejudice the jury.
Although nearly all U.S. owners agreed to take part in a 2016 settlement, VW is being sued by some consumers after it admitted in September 2015 to cheating on diesel emissions tests, sparking the biggest business crisis in its history.
The first consumer fraud trial involves a North Carolina man who bought a 2014 diesel Jetta, and is set for Feb. 26.
But according to a legal filing, Volkswagen of America asked a judge in Fairfax County, Virginia, to delay that trial for at least six months on Friday after a lawyer for more than 300 U.S. VW diesel owners, Michael Melkersen, gave an interview in which he referred to the company testing diesel fumes on monkeys.
This week, Volkswagen in Germany suspended its chief lobbyist in response to reports the carmaker had jointly sponsored tests that exposed monkeys in 2014 to toxic diesel fumes, methods condemned by its chief executive as repulsive.
In the interview for a documentary aired by streaming service Netflix, Melkersen criticized the tests, adding: "One cannot help to think back throughout history of another series of events involving individuals being gassed by a person who was actually at the opening of the very first Volkswagen factory," an apparent reference to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.
In its legal filing, VW's lawyers argued those comments would prevent a fair trial and pointed to another comment Melkersen made in the documentary: "There is a concern, obviously, amongst Volkswagen that if a jury were to ever hear about any of this stuff that that could really impact the verdict in this case."
Volkswagen lawyers said that "pretrial publicity has connected (the company) directly with Hitler and the Holocaust," which they said was not relevant to a trial about alleged consumer fraud claims.
Melkersen called the VW legal motion "hogwash."
"This is another tactic to postpone their day of reckoning," Melkersen told Reuters by phone.
VW has agreed to spend more than $25 billion in the United States to address claims from owners, environmental regulators, U.S. states and dealers and to make buyback offers.
As part of that, Volkswagen said in 2016 it would buy back or fix nearly 500,000 polluting 2.0-liter diesel U.S. vehicles. About 2,000 owners opted out and most are pursuing court claims seeking additional compensation. The first trials could potentially set a template for the remaining suits.
The monkey tests were also sponsored by Daimler and BMW and both said this week they had suspended or moved staff linked to the testing. VW said the monkey tests were approved by an independent review board to protect animals.