Tarrant County has sued Fiat Chrysler, alleging that hundreds of Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Rams in the area are violating clean air laws because the manufacturer tampered with emissions systems.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Tarrant County District Court comes just weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged that Fiat Chrysler installed software in roughly 104,000 cars and trucks nationwide that altered emissions.
The allegations are similar to those lodged against Volkswagen, which agreed to pay billions of dollars in compensation and penalties after a scheme was uncovered involving hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered vehicles over several years.
Tarrant County appears to be one of the first local government units to respond to the allegations against Fiat Chrysler and seek a financial award to offset the air pollution that may have been caused by the emissions.
If the company’s emissions equipment allowed a higher level of nitrogen oxides into the air, that would lead to ozone and potentially cause bronchitis, emphysema, asthma and other maladies among area residents, according to the lawsuit.
“Defendants designed, manufactured and installed in certain diesel engine vehicles eight auxiliary emission control devices that, either alone or in combination, reduce the effectiveness of the emission control system when the vehicles are in use on Tarrant County roads under normal vehicle operation,” according to the lawsuit, signed by Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson.
Fiat Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese said Thursday that the U.S. arm of the company had not seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on its specifics. But the company issued a statement by email.
“FCA US diesel engines are equipped with state-of-the-art emission control systems hardware, including selective catalytic reduction,” the statement read. “Every auto manufacturer must employ various strategies to control tailpipe emissions in order to balance requirements for engine durability and performance, safety and fuel efficiency while complying with regulatory requirements limiting nitrogen oxide emissions. FCA US believes that its emission control systems meet the applicable requirements and are properly justified and is cooperating with the relevant environmental agencies in connection with their investigations.”
At least 600 vehicles from model years 2014 to 2016 with the allegedly faulty emissions equipment were on the roads in the Fort Worth area, the lawsuit alleges.
Motorists who own one of the vehicles aren’t expected to take any action as a result of the lawsuit, said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who was briefed on the case. Also, Fort Worth-area dealerships are not expected to be involved in the court action.
Tarrant County commissioners authorized the lawsuit this week and agreed to hire a Houston law firm as outside counsel to assist.
The lawsuit also named “the state of Texas acting on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.” The defendants are Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, which is incorporated in the Netherlands and has a headquarters in London, and FCA US LLC, the U.S. arm of the company which has an address in Dallas.
The lawsuit notes that state law prohibits tampering with vehicle emissions systems, and that violations are subject to penalties of $50 to $25,000 per day for each violation.
Whitley acknowledged that it might seem unusual for such a lawsuit, which could have global implications, to be initiated in Tarrant County. But he said Tarrant County officials learned a lesson during the past year or two when they didn’t act quickly enough to be directly involved in lawsuits against Volkswagen and missed out on financial compensation.
Whitley said Harris County and a handful of other Texas counties filed lawsuits against VW and were included in the action, but once the state of Texas got involved other counties could not join in.
“When the Volkswagen deal was done, some counties got in front of the state and, once the state filed theirs, they said no other counties could file because they were preempted,” Whitley said. “On this one, we just decided to go ahead and get our name in the hopper.”
Whitley also noted that, for years, the Dallas-Fort Worth region — now home to more than 7 million residents — has been considered an EPA non-attainment area, meaning the area’s air quality doesn’t meet federal standards. As a result, the region has had to take steps such as reducing speed limits to minimize emissions. So, Whitley said, the issue of air pollution is arguably more a local matter than a state matter.
“We’re making the argument that to some extent … when it comes to air quality it’s not the state that gets penalized as much as it’s the region,’ he said.