German Court Dismisses Climate-Related Lawsuit Against Volkswagen AG

The regional court of Braunschweig, as competent court for the headquarters of Volkswagen AG ("VW"), rendered a decision that is a significant setback for climate litigation activists in Germany by fully dismissing a Greenpeace-sponsored lawsuit against VW that sought to impose far-reaching restrictions on the company.

In a judgment of 14 February 2023, the court dismissed the action brought by climate activists and supported by Greenpeace that sought an order to prohibit the distribution of VW vehicles with combustion engines as of 2030 and to oblige VW by 2030 to reduce its CO2 emissions by 65 % compared to 2018-levels. Claimants invoked the so-called "Climate-Decision" by the German Constitutional Court (BVerfG 24 March 2021, 1 BvR 2656/18) and alleged VW was violating its constitutional property, health, and freedom rights due to VW's asserted contribution to climate change. 

In dismissing the action, the court referred to another decision from the German Constitutional Court dated 18 January 2022, which held that the German legislature complied sufficiently with its climate-related constitutional obligations by enacting the German Climate Protection Act on 31 August 2021. The court in Braunschweig also found that VW is in compliance with regulatory obligations and held that the climate-related obligations of a private organization like VW do not exceed the constitutional obligations of the legislature itself. This led the court to conclude that the restrictions demanded by the plaintiffs were unfounded. 

However, the court expressly left open the following issues as irrelevant to its judgment of the action against VW: (i) whether the claimants' rights had been breached; (ii) whether VW qualifies as infringer of the alleged rights; and (iii) whether VW's operations are causal for the asserted breach. 

This latest decision follows the same direction of earlier decisions by the regional court of Stuttgart that dismissed a similar lawsuit against Mercedes-Benz, and from the regional court of Munich that dismissed a respective lawsuit against BMW. Although the issue is far from legally settled, the judgment of the Braunschweig court to dismiss the argument that climate-related obligations of companies can extend beyond those required to comply with regulation may well establish a strong precedent against climate-related civil lawsuits in Germany more generally.

See our related Jones Day White Paper, "ESG—Climate Change and Related Litigation Take Center Stage in Europe."

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