Northern California Record

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Jurors in VW 'clean diesel' case award minimal damages; contentious trial moves to punitive phase

Federal Court

By Ann Maher | Mar 4, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO - Jurors in a "clean diesel" case against Volkswagen awarded plaintiffs minimal compensatory damages on Tuesday in a contentious trial that began Feb. 25.

A second phase to determine punitive damages is under way.

The case arises from Volkswagen’s evasion of U.S. and California emissions standards by equipping clean diesel vehicles with hidden defeat devices that gamed emissions testing procedures.

Half of the 10 plaintiffs at trial are opt outs of class action litigation consolidated at the Northern District of California. They seek damages under the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which provides compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees. Jurors awarded five plaintiffs less than $6,000 in total with the other five plaintiffs receiving nothing in economic damages.

They are represented by the Knight Law Group (KLG) and The Altman Law Group of Los Angeles, whose attorneys have tried unsuccessfully to disqualify presiding District Judge Charles Breyer, and more recently sought a mistrial claiming the judge was biased against their clients.

Breyer denied the move to disqualify, ruling that the plaintiff lawyers failed to demonstrate the degree of "favoritisim or antagonism required to justify his disqualification."

Plaintiffs' motion for mistrial, filed last Friday, argues that comments made by Breyer at trial "essentially reflected the Defendants' arguments" and were "unnecessary and improper."

"Plaintiffs have brought this motion because the Court’s repeated comments and conduct has made it necessary to do so," KLG argues. "At this point, Plaintiffs do not believe that any judgment in this case will be based on a fair trial. The Court’s comments and remarks have unfairly influenced the jury against the Plaintiffs’ position."

KLG claims that Breyer's comments, remarks, "debate-like" arguments and questions were to "shore-up" flaws in Volkswagen expert witness Dr. Timothy Bresnahan's analysis.

On Tuesday, attorneys representing Volkswagen at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and Los Angeles urged Breyer to "swiftly" deny plaintiffs motion for mistrial.

"Plaintiffs’ counsel has clearly sought to provoke the Court and to create the unfair appearance of partiality in the event of a verdict that does not satisfy Plaintiffs’ desire for an unjustified windfall," Volkswagen's attorneys argue. "In fact, it now appears that Plaintiffs’ counsel is trying to intimidate the Court by filing this motion."

They also argue that the mistrial motion is another "in a long line of unprofessional tactics from Plaintiffs’ counsel, and not just in this case.

"Without performing an exhaustive search, Defendants readily identified four motions filed by Bryan Altman and the Knight Law Group to disqualify the presiding judge in their cases."

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U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California