BRUNSWICK, Germany -- The 470,000 diesel-car owners who signed up for a case against Volkswagen Group may face an uphill struggle after a German court questioned whether they really lost anything because of the emissions-cheating software in their cars.
Drivers have been able to use their cars, leaving “the central issue” of what they actually lost, Presiding Judge Michael Neef said Monday, the first day of hearings.
The court will also review whether any loss in value was solely linked to vehicle bans that came only two years after the diesel scandal broke. Even if the court finds damages, claims may be lowered because of drivers’ continued use of their cars over time, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense to us that drivers should be granted the right to use cars for free,” said Neef, who spoke for all three judges hearing the case. “Otherwise, we would have to grant punitive damages that do not exist under German law.”
Almost four years after the company’s use of illegal software that cheated on emissions tests was disclosed in the U.S., many Audi, VW, Seat and Skoda owners in Germany are still waiting for a payout.
Officials passed a law last year that allows consumer groups to bring sample suits on behalf of buyers, giving them a simpler way to sue.
The diesel-emissions scandal haunted VW since September 2015, when it admitted using the software in 11 million diesel vehicles.
When the diesel scandal broke 2.4 million cars with defeat devices were on German roads. Since then, 99 percent have received a software update.
The toll has so far reached 30 billion euros ($33 billion) in fines and other expenses for VW. The consumer suit is likely to drag on during a period when the company is facing a shift to electric cars and slower sales in some key markets.
Monday’s comments are preliminary and may still change, Neef said. The court will review the issues and discuss them further at a Nov. 18 hearing in Brunswick, a venue close to VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters.
The judges are pondering whether to join other German tribunals that have granted the lawsuits because owners faced the risk that their cars could be banned from roads by transport authorities and suffered losses in resale values. Any ruling in the mass case is likely to influence similar suits and claims worldwide.
Volkswagen Group rejected a call from the presiding judge to settle the customer class action lawsuit, saying there was no case to answer. "The vehicles are driven by hundreds of thousands of customers every day, which is why we believe there is no damage and therefore no cause for complaint," the automaker said.
However, state-financed consumer protection organization vzbv has expressed confidence in being able to win or settle the case, pointing to the fact that a majority of local and higher regional courts have so far ruled in favor of motorists.
Vzbv has said it aimed to show that owners of VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat cars with so-called type EA 189 diesel engines have been intentionally harmed by VW's use of software that was used to cheat emissions tests.
VW has said that there was no legal basis for consumers in Germany to seek compensation due to differences in law.
Nearly all U.S. owners of affected cars agreed to take part in a $25 billion settlement in 2016 in the United States that addressed claims from them, environmental regulators, U.S. states and dealers and included buyback offers and additional compensation for about 500,000 owners.
VW had rejected criticism that the compensation for U.S. car owners was not extended to other jurisdictions.
Consumers have also brought lawsuits in countries including Switzerland, Australia and Belgium.
Reuters contributed to this report