Sustained legal campaign by Environmental Defence and Ecojustice crucial to prosecution

Toronto, Ont. – Environmental groups Ecojustice and Environmental Defence welcome the federal government’s long-awaited prosecution of Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating, which has resulted in the auto giant being fined $196.5 million.

While Volkswagen’s fine set a record as the largest environmental payout in Canadian history, it would have not happened without a sustained legal campaign by staff of Environmental Defence, represented by Ecojustice, which prevented the federal government from ignoring the issue.

However, the groups also recognize that the Crown prosecution failed to use the full force of the law to ensure the company’s punishment is consistent with the gravity of its crime and fines ordered in other jurisdictions.

Volkswagen’s $196.5 million fine is well below the legal maximum based on charges laid against the company, much lower than the total violations that occurred, and a tiny fraction of the billions in criminal fines it paid in the United States. The criminal fine for each car comes to $1,450, an amount much likely less than the profit the company made from the sale of each polluting car in Canada.

Federal prosecutors opted to secretly negotiate with Volkswagen, in what amounted to dubious “charge bargaining” and accept a plea deal from the company before the Crown ever laid charges. In doing so, they minimized the charges against Volkswagen, in some cases by a ratio of 10,000 to 1, resulting in a reduced fine.

On December 9, 2019, charges were laid against Volkswagen but these charges only addressed the importation of cars, not their sale, and all cars were of the same model were bundled under one charge. For example, the importation of 10,269 model year 2011 Volkswagen Jettas were counted as only one offence, instead of 10,269 offences.

The Crown also prevented victims of Volkswagen’s emissions cheating from speaking to their experience in court and influencing sentencing — Muhannad Malas of Environmental Defence was denied the chance to read a Community Impact Statement. Impact statements are a common practice in criminal prosecutions, including in U.S. court proceedings against Volkswagen.

Ecojustice and Environmental Defence urge the Canadian government to conduct a thorough examination of the investigation and prosecution of Volkswagen and fulfil its commitment to reform the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to ensure stronger enforcement of pollution regulations, public participation and accountability.

Amir Attaran, Ecojustice lawyer said:

“While it is encouraging to see Volkswagen finally prosecuted more than four years after the emissions scandal broke, the fine effectively amounts to a parking ticket for the auto giant. There are also serious questions to be answered as to how this investigation and prosecution were handled.

“Ecojustice, on behalf of our clients, will continue to use the full force of the law to ensure the government fulfils the rights guaranteed to Canadians under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and ensures polluters pay for their environmental crimes.”

Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence said:

“Canadians expect our government to act appropriately when corporations break our laws and pollute our environment. However, in this case Volkswagen was favoured by multi-year delays, fines that don’t match the crime and lack of prosecution of executives who deliberately undertook this illegal activity. Clearly there is an urgent need to reform the Canadian approach to prosecuting environmental crimes.”

Background information:

  • In September 2015, news emerged that VW had installed illegal software in its diesel cars, which resulted in 35 times the approved level of nitrogen oxides being emitted, posing a threat to human health.
  • About 128,000 such cars with diesel engines were imported and sold in Canada based on fraudulent regulatory submissions, all of which are illegal.
  • A recent study found a link between illegal VW cars and increased rates of low birth weight and acute asthma attacks in children.
  • The Crown also failed to charge Volkswagen with fraud, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

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For media enquiries, please contact:

Sarah Jamal, Environmental Defence, sjamal@environmentaldefence.ca, 416-323-9521 ext. 251

Sean O’Shea, Ecojustice, soshea@ecojustice.ca, 416-368-7533 ext. 523