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German Consumers Fight Automakers For Compensation In Emissions Scandal


Two years ago, the EPA ruled that the Volkswagen Group had deliberately manipulated its diesel cars to hide how much pollution they were emitting. In the U.S., between fines and payouts to car owners, the scandal has cost the company nearly $23 billion. But that's just one part of the story. VW and its subsidiaries like Audi have resisted paying compensation to car owners in Europe. There some 8 million diesel cars have been affected. And in Germany, people are fighting for change. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Retired German Judge Hartmut Baeumer says he's driven German-made diesel cars for more than a quarter of a century. The 69-year-old says he even let Audi officials talk him out of buying a Toyota Prius in 2008 when he discovered his A6 wasn't as fuel efficient as advertised.

HARTMUT BAEUMER: And they told me, no, we will change now. It will be - everything will be better. And finally I decided, OK, I'll try it once more.

NELSON: The Audi A4 he bought a year later turned out to be one of the diesel models embroiled in the emissions test cheating scandal. Baeumer has been in a fight with VW Audi ever since. He claims the $58 software upgrade the German automaker is proposing could harm his car and won't keep it from exceeding current pollution limits set by the European Union. Baeumer is demanding a similar hardware upgrade offered to hundreds of thousands of U.S. VW Audi owners. He estimates it will cost about $1,700 dollars and says the carmaker refuses to do it.

BAEUMER: Compared with the United States, German consumers are citizens of second class.

NELSON: The German government and EU officials aren't demanding parity even though the carmakers broke the laws here, too. So earlier this year, Baeumer turned to the German courts for relief. Another 15,000 German diesel car owners did the same this week, joining the consumer advocacy group myRight in a $420 million lawsuit. Lawyer Christopher Rother, who works with the American firm Hausfeld in Berlin, represents Baeumer and the other plaintiffs.

CHRISTOPHER ROTHER: We have two stakeholders here. I mean, one stakeholder is the consumer. The other stakeholder is the environment. And nothing really was done to address consumer and environmental issues in an effective way.

NELSON: VW disagrees. In an email to NPR, a spokesman says it expects German courts to dismiss the latest claims against VW over the diesel scandal. German law doesn't provide for German consumers the kind of protections U.S. law does for American consumers, including the ability to file a class-action suit. The VW spokesman says customer trust and satisfaction are, quote, "extremely important" to the company, and that repairs are being made in accordance with guidelines provided by the German agency that regulates motor vehicles. That doesn't satisfy VW's many German critics, however. Rother criticizes the close ties between carmakers and the German government, which is protective of the 800,000 jobs the automotive industry provides.

ROTHER: The financial and economic threat to the German auto industry is considered to be such an issue that you will hardly find any politician who will want to do something about it.

NELSON: Rother adds his firm expects to file more lawsuits over the coming year not only in Germany, but in several other European countries. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.


Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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