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The Law Behind the Volkswagen Scandal


This past Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency accused German automaker Volkswagen of cheating on emissions tests.  Several studies determined that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to detect when a government-mandated emissions test was occurring and to reduce their nitrogen oxide output during the test.  Volkswagen has acknowledged that the actions behind this scandal may result in criminal prosecutions.  But which laws have been broken?

In the United States where this scandal broke, the Clean Air Act of 1970 is the primary law governing air pollution emissions standards.  The Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 to add several new items, including rules for particulate emissions from diesel engines.  These standards are required under 42 U.S.C. § 7521 and tested as per 42 U.S.C. § 7525; Volkswagen is accused of installing its cars with software created specifically to cheat this test, which is specifically illegal under 42 U.S.C. § 7522(a)(3)(B).

Volkswagen will be facing possible criminal and congressional investigations in the United States, and may soon be facing legal difficulties in other countries as well; legal researchers interested in this scandal should keep an eye out for the many new judicial and legislative materials that may become available soon.

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