In 2016, an Italian NGO (Altroconsumo), representing over 63,000 individuals who had bought Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda vehicles in the relevant period, started a class action against Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft and Volkswagen Group Italia S.p.A ("VWAG" and "VWGI", together "Volkswagen") before the Court of Venice, seeking a declaration that they engaged in unfair commercial practices against Italian consumers. The case is the Italian spin-off of the so called "Dieselgate scandal" which exploded in 2015, when the [US] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notified the German carmaker an alleged emissions standard violation. It was later discovered that, between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen had employed a particular piece of software (the so-called defeat device) that allowed some vehicles with diesel engines to pass emissions standards test that they would otherwise have failed.
The Italian class action followed the decision of the Italian Competition Authority ("ICA"), which held Volkswagen liable for unfair commercial practices under articles 20, 21 and 23 of the Italian Consumers Code and issued a fine of € 5 million (see, Italian Competition Authority v. Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft and Volkswagen Group Italia S.p.A, which is still ongoing.
Altroconsumo claimed that Volkswagen (i) falsely stated the level of the polluting emissions of Volkswagen-branded EA 189 diesel vehicles (by installing the so-called defeat device to falsify the result of the emission tests) and (ii) engaged in advertising campaigns presenting its vehicles as having specific green features able to protect the environment by reducing CO2 emissions: such "green claims" were false and deceptive, and constituted a misleading commercial practice prohibited by the Unfair Commercial Practice Directive no. 2005/29/CE (implemented in Italy by Legislative Decree no. 145/2007). Altroconsumo therefore argued that Italian consumers' right to freedom of contract was breached and that they had suffered direct financial loss, equal to the decrease in value of the vehicle(s) they have bought because it did not possess the promised green qualities.
Volkswagen denied Altroconsumo's allegations and raised a series of preliminary objections which were all rejected.
The Court of first instance upheld Altroconsumo's claims and found that the defendants were responsible for using misleading, and at times false, "green claims" in their marketing and advertising activities. The Court awarded damages, amounting to Euro 3,000 for each member of the class action in financial damage, plus Euro 300 in moral damage (over Euro 200M in total), plus legal expenses. According to the Court of first instance, Volkswagen's conduct potentially misled consumers and such potential effect was enough to draw a causal link between Volkswagen's behaviour and the damage suffered by the consumers, as it was presumed – in the absence of evidence to the contrary – that consumers were influenced in their commercial choices by Volkswagen's 'green claims'. To reach its conclusions, the Court of first instance relied on reasoning expressed by the Italian Supreme Court in prospectus liability cases where a similar presumption applies.
Volkswagen appealed the decision issued by the Court of first instance before the Court of Appeal of Venice. The appeal is still pending.
No case documents are available.