MARTIN: This past week, the German car giant Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests with a device built into VW diesel engines. Just hours after the story broke, a Seattle-based law firm filed a consumer class-action suit against Volkswagen. And by Friday, the number of federal suits that had been filed against VW had reached at least 34. That number seems to be climbing. Here to talk through the number of class-action suits is data journalist Mona Chalabi.
CHALABI: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Explain this number. Where did these 34 cases come from?
CHALABI: All over the country, actually. There’s been a bit of a gold rush for this – and I can tell you a little bit about the gold kind of later on. But for now, I just want to explain really quickly what a class-action lawsuit is because it wasn’t completely clear to me. So it’s a type of lawsuit where one or several people sue on behalf of a much larger group. And it’s that larger group that is known as the class. And in the case of Volkswagen, almost 500,000 cars have been recalled in the U.S. alone.
MARTIN: Is there any precedent for this?
CHALABI: Yeah, absolutely. So class-action lawsuits of this kind are sort of common. In 2012, Toyota agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a class-action suit to car owners who said they lost money because of a fault in their vehicles. It was a really serious flaw as well. The car actually accelerated automatically, and that fault resulted in at least one death.
MARTIN: As you mentioned, Toyota paid out over a billion dollars. Does that mean that individuals can get big payouts in these kinds of cases?
CHALABI: They can do, but not necessarily. So one plaintiff in that particular case, a computer science student called Jonathan Sourbeer, said he got a check for $20.91 from Toyota for his vehicle flaw. And I think what’s really striking about that is when you compare those sums to what the lawyers are getting. So in that case, there were 85 plaintiff lawyers who, between them, managed to get $227 million in fees and costs from Toyota.
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