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German Volkswagen trial: how does it differ from the UK legal claim?

Head of the consumer law and product safety department Bozena Michalowska comments on the beginning of the German trial against Volkswagen in relation to the emissions scandal

Posted on 30 September 2019

Today, a German court will be hearing a landmark collective lawsuit against Volkswagen over emissions test cheating in the “dieselgate” saga.
The legal case brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (VZBV) and Germany’s largest motoring club ADAC will be the first of its kind in Germany, with some 440,000 claimants. 

The German lawsuit, akin to the US style class action where a claim is brought by a representative claimant on behalf of a larger group, has been described as the largest legal claim of its kind in German legal history. It is expected to take years to complete.
In addition to the German law suit and the US class action against VW (which was settled in April 2016) collective class actions have been filed by consumer groups all over the world including Canada, Australia, France and Italy. The Australian class action settled recently with agreement being reached for a compensation fund of a minimum of AU$87m being made available to Australian motorists.
Meanwhile in the UK, almost 100,000 Claimants are gearing up for a preliminary issue trial due to be heard in December this year. The UK claim has itself been similarly described as the biggest group action in the history of the courts of England and Wales. The difference, however, is that this claim is not a class action brought by a consumer organisation or representative claimant on behalf a class of unnamed individuals. In the UK action the cases are being coordinated as a group claim, with each claimant seeking compensation issuing proceedings in court in their own name and each facing the risk of having to pay their share of VW’s legal costs if the claim is unsuccessful.
A class action system was introduced to the UK in October 2015 in relation to consumer claims for breaches of competition law only. Aside from competition law, attempts at bringing representative class actions in England have met with resistance from the courts. The most recent attempt made by the former Director of Which? Richard Lloyd, against Google in respect of alleged data protection breaches was blocked by the High Court. That decision has been appealed. 
In light of the consumer actions being brought around the world in relation to the emissions scandal, surely it is now time for a class action system covering all types of claim to be introduced to England and Wales so that consumers have the same or similar rights of redress as in many other countries. 

Individual consumers in the UK should have more choice and not be forced to take up the fight against a behemoth like VW, themselves if they need redress.  They should be able to also look to our UK Consumer organisations to stand up for consumer rights. For that to happen those organisations need to have the ability to stand in the collective shoes of the consumer and hold multinationals accountable. 


Boz Michalowska
Medical devices Product safety Consumer law Financial claims Emissions claims

Bozena Michalowska Howells

Bozena joined Leigh Day in 1997, was made a partner in 2003 and is head of the firm's product safety and consumer law team.