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Arizona AG claims in suit Mercedes lied about clean cars

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

On the heels of legal victories against Volkswagen, the Attorney General’s Office is now charging Mercedes Benz and parent company Daimler AG with lying to Arizona consumers about its own clean-burning diesel engines.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court contends that the German automaker marketed its BlueTEC diesel vehicles as converting nitrous oxide emissions into “pure, earth-friendly nitrogen and water,” producing “fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline” and exceeding legally required emission standards.

But what the company did not disclose, the lawsuit states, is that these BlueTEC engines were programmed to turn off or reduce the emission-reduction systems during normal driving.

“As a consequence of this critical concealed material fact, consumers are unaware that — contrary to defendants’ representations — the affected Mercedes vehicles are not clean diesels and, to the contrary, emit enormous amounts of NOx pollutants into the atmosphere,” according to Rob Carey, whose law firm, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, was retained by the state by virtue of its expertise in these kind of cases.

The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for potentially up to 10,000 Arizonans who purchased or leased certain Mercedes vehicles between 2007 and 2016, and $10,000 in penalties for each violation.

Calls to company officials for comment were not immediately returned.

At the heart of the issue is that diesel engines can produce more torque than standard gasoline engines because they operate at very high temperature and pressure.

“But this greater energy and fuel efficiency comes at a cost: Diesels produce dirtier and more dangerous emissions,” the lawsuit states. One of these are oxides of nitrogen — known as NOx — which  produces compounds that react with sunlight to form ozone which has been linked to serious respiratory dangers.

“Defendants understood that its BlueTEC vehicles as environmentally superior to gasoline cars would be material to a reasonable consumer interested in environmental issues with respect to a decision to purchase a car,” Carey wrote. And the lawsuit cites a series of statements and commercials by the company promoting those clean-air benefits.

The vehicles sold did, in fact, pass federal emissions tests.

What caused people to take notice, however, was the discovery several years ago that Volkswagen, marketing its own clean-diesel vehicles, had programmed them to pass the tests and then shut off the emission-reduction systems. VW eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges, agreed to pay $4.3 billion in penalties to the U.S. Environmental Protection agency and another $17.5 billion to resolve civil lawsuits, including $40 million directly to Arizona consumers in a case brought by the Attorney General’s Office.

This new lawsuit says that Mercedes designed its vehicles in a similar fashion, allowing them to test as meeting federal emissions standards in laboratory situations that did not match what motorists actually face.

For example, the lawyers tested one vehicle with a BlueTEC engine over the course of 1,330 miles, 953 of which were on the highway and the balance in stop-and-go traffic or variable speed conditions. What they found is that the emissions for those stop-and-go conditions met the legally required standards just 21 percent of the time.

And for highway driving, just 8 percent of the vehicle miles traveled met the standards.

In general, violations of federal clean-air standards are the purview of the EPA.

But where Arizona gets a legal voice is in its Consumer Fraud Act, with the allegations being that the company “conspired to conceal the true operating characteristics” of the vehicles in their advertising and promotional materials “with an intent to mislead Arizona consumers.”

Carey said this is the first lawsuit in the nation filed by a state to get compensation under consumer fraud laws.

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