On Tuesday, a federal consumer watchdog sued Volkswagen, saying the company made false claims in commercials promoting its ‘Clean Diesel’ vehicles as environmentally friendly.

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday accused Volkswagen Group of deceiving American consumers into buying emission-spewing diesel vehicles, seeking more than $15 billion in damages in what could be one of the largest false-advertising cases in U.S. history.

The FTC filed a four-count civil complaint against Volkswagen Group in U.S. District Court in California, alleging the company falsely advertised that it was selling new “clean diesel” vehicles that were purchased by about 550,000 buyers.

The lawsuit compounds the German automaker’s legal troubles in the U.S., where it is already facing a criminal probe and numerous lawsuits after it admitted that it rigged more than half a million vehicles with software to cheat emissions regulations.

“This was an FTC case waiting to happen because they based their entire advertising campaign on this benefit,” said Linda Goldstein, chair of law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips’ advertising, marketing and media practice, in an interview.

The FTC is pursuing “permanent injunctive relief, rescission, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief,” according to the lawsuit. Though FTC attorneys did not specify an amount, a person familiar with the case said the government is seeking more than $15 billion in damages.

“For years Volkswagen’s ads touted the company’s ‘clean diesel’ cars even though it now appears Volkswagen rigged the cars with devices designed to defeat emissions tests,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement. “Our lawsuit seeks compensation for the consumers who bought affected cars based on Volkswagen’s deceptive and unfair practices.”

Volkswagen TV commercials, print advertisements, press releases, emails and online videos invariably promoted the company’s “clean diesel” slogan, claimed that VW diesels had low emissions and describing the cars as “environmentally-conscious,” “eco-conscious,” or “green,” according to the lawsuit.




The FTC has charged that Volkswagen deceived consumers with the advertising campaign it used to promote its supposedly “clean diesel.”

“It was a very emotionally appealing campaign,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland said in an interview. “You felt like you were a good human being. It made you feel better about buying a diesel and it also made you feel like you were buying the latest technology.”

According to the lawsuit, VW marketers studied potential diesel customers and determined that they “rationalize themselves out of their aspirations and justify buying lesser cars under the guise of being responsible.”

The company has already set aside $7 billion to pay for repair costs on the approximately 11 million vehicles globally that are affected by the emissions scandal.  But analysts expect tens of billions of fines and settlements before the episode is complete.

The lawsuit was filed in the court’s Northern District of California, which is also handling the consolidated litigation from consumers seeking economic damages over the emissions violations. That could expedite what attorneys describe as a global settlement involving the various claims against Volkswagen, which corporations often prefer over years of uncertain litigation.

“Volkswagen has received the complaint and continues to cooperate with all relevant U.S. regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission,” VW said Tuesday in a statement. “Our most important priority is to find a solution to the diesel emissions matter and earn back the trust of our customers and dealers as we build a better company.”

Volkswagen diesel cars on models ranging from 2009 through 2015 are emitting harmful pollutants — namely nitrogen oxide, which can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma — at rates of up to 40 times U.S. standards.

In several instances, Volkswagen marketing materials claimed that its diesel vehicles reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 90%, according to the FTC.

Goldstein, the advertising lawyer, said the FTC’s “threshold for proving deception is quite low” in cases like this. For example, VW could still be held liable even if the marketers who made the ads didn’t know that the vehicles violated federal standards.

In one 2015 online video for VW’s “Diesel Old Wives’ Tale” series, an “old wife” holds a white scarf to the exhaust of a VW Golf SportWagen TDI and deems it pristine.

“See how clean it is?” the woman asks.

“Volkswagen TDI Clean Diesel: Like really clean diesel,” the ad’s tagline concluded, according to the FTC.

That video alone was viewed at least 9 million times.

  • VW CEO Winterkorn Resigns Amid Emissions Scandal
  • VW CEO apologizes for emissions scandal
  • U.S. sues VW over cheating emissions tests
  • Volkswagen dealers report 25% decline in November U.S. auto sales
  • VW cheated on emissions tests
  • How do you fix 11 million cars?
  • VW to delay or cancel all non-essential investments
  • Could the emissions scandal threaten VW's existence?
  • Americans buying new cars, just not VW
  • County sues VW for $100 million over emissions
  • VW drivers get angry notes over emissions scandal
  • VW Owners Join Lawsuit Over Diesel Deception
  • Can VW Win Back Trust After Admitting Diesel Dupes?
  • EPA: VW Purposely Violated Clean Air Standards
  • VW Swaps CEOs, Faces Stiff Fines in Diesel Cheat

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.