Smith County is preparing a civil lawsuit against Volkswagen for added emissions released in the county's air amid accusations that the company installed devices to circumvent federal and state regulations.

Earlier this month, United States regulators accused Volkswagen group, which also produces Audi and Porsche vehicles, of putting devices on their cars that cheated the country's emission tests.

The "defeat devices" were originally thought to be on about 85,000 six-cylinder Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen diesel-powered cars in model years 2009 through 2016. Information released on Thursday suggests another 482,000 four-cylinder diesel cars also have the device.

This month, Smith County Commissioners approved a resolution authorizing filing a civil lawsuit against the German-based company for monetary damages related to increased emissions produced by those vehicles that were sold in the county.

According to the resolution, the cars emit 40 times the permitted levels of nitrogen oxides, which are "harmful to the public health, particularly those with respiratory problems."

Smith County is seeking civil penalties, attorney's fees and injunctive relief for the manufacturer failing to comply with the state's environmental laws.

"We have issues with air quality in the county," County Judge Joel Baker said. "To the extent that Volkswagen by their emission issues contributed to that, we have to protect our interests."

Assistant District Attorney Philip Smith said the commissioners approved entering into a contract with the firm Potter Minton, PC to represent the county in the matter.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph filed a Texas Public Information Act request for this contract, as well contracts with two other law firms, but those requests were denied by the county.

Smith said the county will fight the requests from the newspaper and ask for an Attorney General opinion on whether those contracts are public information. District Attorney Matt Bingham later clarified that Smith will fight the release of those contracts at the request of commissioners.

The firm will be paid through a contingency fee, meaning the attorneys will get a cut of any damages awarded to the county, Smith said.

Contingency fees must be approved by the Texas Comptroller's Office.

"That's in the works now," Baker said. "As far as (how long until a) lawsuit is filed, I can't tell you how quickly all of that will take place."

While the comptroller looks at the proposed fee, the firm will look into statutes to support its case including looking at the Texas Water Code, Texas Clean Air Act as well as the Environmental Protection Agency's ozone standards. Deceptive trade practice laws also will be evaluated, Smith said.

The state of Texas, as well as Harris and Fort Bend Counties, also have filed civil lawsuits seeking damages against the automaker.

The state's top lawyer, Attorney General Ken Paxton, has sent both counties letters requesting they drop their legislation and let the state handle the suit, according to the Texas Tribune.

At issue is the distribution of potential damages and who should get them - the state as a whole versus individual counties, according to the Tribune.

"The issue is this - a county can do it to protect its own interests …" Judge Baker said Tuesday. "There is a financial gain from a lawsuit. If a county does not protect its own interests, it goes to the state."

If Smith County received any monetary damages, the funds would go into the general fund, Baker said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



Digital Content Manager

Faith Harper is an East Texas native working for her hometown newspaper. She specializes in digital content for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. In her spare time, she loves tacos, road trips and is currently learning to sail.

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