SF lawyer chosen to helm VW diesel lawsuits

A San Francisco lawyer was appointed by a federal judge Thursday as the lead counsel in more than 500 consumer fraud lawsuits filed against Volkswagen over the emissions cheating software it installed in diesel vehicles.

Elizabeth Cabraser of the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein was named by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco, who is presiding over the lawsuits.

The lawsuits, some of which seek to be certified as class actions on behalf of large groups of Volkswagen owners, were filed in numerous federal courts around the country but have been transferred to Breyer’s court for purposes of judicial efficiency.

Breyer said in a written order that he is confident that:

“Ms. Cabraser will effectively represent and guide the plaintiffs toward a resolution that is in their best interests.”

Breyer noted that Cabraser has held leadership positions in 17 other multidistrict litigation cases, including several that concerned automobile defects. The multidistrict term is used to refer to the process of transferring similar lawsuits filed in different court districts into one judge’s court for handling.

Breyer is also presiding over a civil lawsuit the U.S. Justice Department filed against Volkswagen on Jan. 4, alleging violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

That lawsuit alleges the German car maker installed illegal emissions-testing defeat devices in nearly 600,000 diesel vehicles sold in or imported into the United States between 2009 and 2015.

The deceptive software could detect when a car was being tested for harmful pollution emissions and turned on full controls on those occasions, but reduced controls when a car was being driven normally, thus increasing the amount of air pollution caused.

The vehicle owners’ lawsuits include claims of fraud, false advertising and unfair business practices. Cabraser was one of 46 lawyers in those cases who applied for the lead counsel position.

She will be in charge of coordinating briefs and other legal work in the cases and will chair a group of 21 other lawyers known as the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.

Cabraser said in a statement this evening that she was honored to be chosen to chair the team:

“We will do our utmost, working with government regulators, to replace deception with justice, remediation, and compensation.”

Breyer also appointed the steering committee members in the same ruling.

North Carolina trial lawyer and former senator and would-be presidential candidate John Edwards, who applied to be on the committee, was not chosen.

David Boies of Armonk, N.Y., who previously represented couples challenging California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban in federal court in San Francisco, was selected for the committee.

Bay Area lawyers included on the committee in addition to Cabraser are Frank Pitre of Burlingame, Rosemary Rivas of San Franicsco and Lesley Weaver of Oakland.