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Maryland sues Volkswagen over emissions scandal

The Volkswagen logo on a Passat at a dealership.
The Volkswagen logo on a Passat at a dealership. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images)

Maryland is suing Volkswagen for allegedly breaking state environmental laws and causing pollution, state officials announced Tuesday.

The German car company committed a "willful and systematic scheme of cheating" on emissions tests, which sullied the state's air and water and exposed residents to harmful pollutants, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said.

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The lawsuit, which will pit the state's Department of the Environment against the troubled car-manufacturing giant, is seeking a penalty of $25,000 "for each day of each violation of state law," according to a statement released by the department.

"In Maryland alone ... Volkswagen is potentially liable for billions of dollars in penalties," Frosh said.

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Maryland joined Massachusetts and New York in filing lawsuits Tuesday against Volkswagen, opening the latest chapter in the emissions scandal that already has forced the company to agree to pay out billions in settlements to consumers and caused Volkswagen's stock to plummet.

"It's extremely important to send them a message," Frosh said. "You cannot pollute our air and hurt our citizens and expect that you're going to get a slap on the wrist."

In a statement, Volkswagen said it is already in talks with authorities regarding "a comprehensive national resolution of all remaining environmental issues arising from the diesel matter." The company also noted that it has agreed to buy back or modify affected vehicles, create a $2.7 billion environmental trust and invest $2 billion on infrastructure for zero-emission vehicles.

"The allegations in complaints filed by certain states today are essentially not new and we have been addressing them in our discussions with U.S. federal and state authorities," the company said. "It is regrettable that some states have decided to sue for environmental claims now, notwithstanding their prior support of this ongoing federal-state collaborative process."

The suits are the result of a nine-month investigation into the company's emissions test cheating by more than 40 states, Frosh said.

While Volkswagen previously claimed that a small number of employees knew about the cheating, the suits cite internal company documents to allege that the deception was known to those in the company's very highest ranks, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn.

"Not a single employee came forward to blow the whistle or stood up to say this is wrong," Frosh said.

In Maryland, Frosh said, nearly 13,000 diesel Volkswagens were equipped with "defeat devices," which enabled their excessive nitrogen oxide emissions to go unnoticed during inspections.

These emissions, as much as 40 times the legal limit, damaged the local ecosystem and put residents at greater risk of respiratory diseases, said Ben Grumbles, Maryland's secretary of the environment. This violated the state's Healthy Air Act and its laws on car emissions levels, Grumbles said.

"We do not stand for Volkswagen's dirty diesel tactics and emissions trickery, which threaten the waters, lands and lungs of Marylanders in the Chesapeake region," Grumbles said.

The company admitted in 2015 to cheating on emissions tests, Frosh said, but not before attempting to conceal it through "sham recalls" and the destruction of incriminating documents.

Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said such lawsuits have been effective at correcting corporate malfeasance.

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"They are an extremely potent deterrent," she said.

Steinzor said she thought Maryland's suit would be successful, and that it was merited.

"This was one of the most blatant frauds any big company has ever perpetrated," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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