Hypothetically, what legal standing would an individual who does not own a Volkswagen car have to sue Volkswagen for damage to health?

As someone who suffers from respiratory issues, it seems that Volkswagen has likely contributed to the decline in my health in some way by having its cars emit 40x the legal limit of some pollutants known to damage human health.

What laws cover this kind of injury and is there any precedence in UK law, e.g. for injury from other passive sources such as tobacco smoking or environmental damage?

  • 11
    "it seems that VW has likely contributed to the decline in my health in some way" No, that seems extremely unlikely.
    – reirab
    Sep 28, 2015 at 14:52
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    "40x the legal limit" is only applicable to the US. The UK has different emission limits (between two and four times as high depending on when the car was built)
    – YviDe
    Sep 28, 2015 at 16:16
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    Also keep in mind that the "legal limit" for these pollutants is a very small number, so when they throw around terms like 40x the limit, we're still talking about a very low number. The U.S. limit is 0.07 grams/mi, so 40x that is 2.8g/mi (and 40x is the worst case, not constant rate). A large diesel like a school bus or city bus can output a constant 15g/mi. Construction equipment is even less regulated than that! The fact that VW cheated is a very bad thing, but it's not a health concern. Breathing the exhaust from your lawn mower is far worse.
    – JPhi1618
    Sep 28, 2015 at 19:45
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    In a way, you already have. The company has set aside money to pay the applicable fines for breaching these laws, which goes to the government, which pays for public services, or allows reduced taxes. Same with the BP oil spill, and pretty much any other similar scenario.
    – Scott
    Sep 29, 2015 at 6:36
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    Supporting @JPhi1618, VW breaked the emissions limit for their cars 40x. Take in account what particullar limit was overshot, I suppose Euro IV. Why don't you blame every carmaker ever building cars fulfilling Euro III, Euro II, Euro I or even not fulfilling that. And have you thought of what does a coal powerplant do to your lungs every single breath?
    – Crowley
    Mar 22, 2018 at 15:05

2 Answers 2


You can sue anyone you want. But if you are talking about suing VW because they are one of the thousands of entities that contribute to the overall degeneration of our atmospheric quality, then you would lose.

You'd have to be able to show that VW itself caused your respiratory problem to either exist or that their diesel cars exacerbated a pre-existing condition. The type of testimony this would require would be expert testimony, and you would have the burden of showing that VW was the root cause. This would be impossible. You could show negligence (maybe even gross negligence or intentional misrepresentation), but you could never show causation and likely not even damage (attributable to them). These are the three elements you would need to prove. I would wager you could not even hire an expert that would testify to this, because they would lose all credibility in their field if they said that one car manufacturer had a measurable/quantifiable negative effect on your health. Even if you could, the judge would probably not certify the testimony as expert as it's likely junk science, or, the expert would just be disbelieved. There is no way to accurately measure their complicity in having their cars automatically pass emissions tests. It may be that their cars were still low E, just not to the extent they claimed.

  • So it's the old nuclear problem, it's almost impossible to show causation. There mere fact that you have problems attributable to NOX and X% of NOX emissions come from VW cars (or other companies that use their engines) is not enough?
    – user
    Sep 28, 2015 at 16:14
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    The allegations apparently cover "only" 488,000 diesel passenger cars sold since 2008. This is out of around 100 million cars sold over the time period.Granted, diesel pollutants are different than gasoline pollutants, but you'd have a hard time proving that 0.5% of all cars caused any specific health problem. And these figures ignore heavy trucks, industrial equipment, ocean liners, which also contribute to air pollution.
    – Johnny
    Sep 28, 2015 at 17:07
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    Not to mention all the other things that contribute to the overall problem of air pollution.
    – gracey209
    Sep 28, 2015 at 17:12
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    I would also add that because the case would be so overwhelmingly hard to prove, they may have a counterclaim for frivolous lawsuits.
    – corsiKa
    Sep 28, 2015 at 18:11
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    @fabriced... Sure, or probably... But how do you prove they came from a VW versus any other car on the road that has a lesser standard of emissions. The VW isssue is not that those cars had super high emissions, just that they were fiddling with the system that reported how high they are in comparison to how low they claimed they'd be.
    – gracey209
    Sep 28, 2015 at 19:02

To answer your question in a slightly different direction:

The primary movers who would have a case of action here would be either the federal or states' attorneys general (or both). They are tasked with, among other things, taking actions against companies who do harm to the community as a whole but not necessarily to any one specific individual. Rather than a class action lawsuit, which would still require proving a specific harm, they can take more general action, including prosecuting them criminally for fraud and/or taking them to civil court. They're able to pursue things a bit more removed from direct harm than an individual.

While you would not be directly reimbursed for this, assuming the state AG won the case (or more likely achieved a settlement), that money would pay your state's coffers which would hopefully either slightly reduce your tax burden or slightly increase the services rendered by the state - either way, helping you out, at least indirectly.

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