Netflix Documentary

VW: Don’t compare monkey tests to Hitler

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A lawyer’s decision to refer to VW’s past may yet come back to haunt him. Source: Imago

Many marketing departments would probably give their right arm to be featured free-of-charge in a Netflix series these days. But this probably wasn’t what Volkswagen had in mind. The first episode of a new documentary on the global streaming site, called “Dirty Money,” delved into the corporate greed behind VW’s long-running Dieselgate scandal. It also honed in on revelations that a lobby group, sponsored by VW and other German carmakers, had tested diesel emissions on monkeys.

The documentary released last week is pretty damning. Particularly some of the language: “One cannot help to think back throughout history to individuals being gassed by a person who was actually at the opening of the first Volkswagen factory,” Michael Melkerson, a lawyer who is leading a class-action lawsuit against VW, says in the documentary. The allusion to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis (who did in fact help found VW) is clear.

For VW, which has paid out more than $20 billion because of Dieselgate and watched its reputation be dragged through the mud for nearly three years now, this was a step to far. The German carmaker now says it can no longer get a fair trial in the United States – at least not right now. Mr. Melkerson disagrees.

VW said "inflammatory comparisons" with the Nazis were intended to influence possible jurors.

Over the weekend, VW sought to shift the unwanted publicity to its advantage: It asked a US court to postpone a number of lawsuits relating to Dieselgate for six months (VW admitted back in 2015 that it installed software to cheat emissions tests in 11 million diesel cars). In a submission to the court, Volkswagen’s lawyers claim the Netflix film is not a credibly objective documentary, saying that the film restages experiments carried out on monkeys, but does not inform viewers that the images are reenactments.

But more importantly it cites the “inflammatory comparisons” made in the documentary by Mr. Melkerson.  The carmaker suggests he made the comments in order to influence jurors in the trials, which could cost Volkswagen over $225 million.  One of the trials, in the US state of Virginia, is currently in its jury selection phase. Mr. Melkerson is representing 300 diesel vehicle owners who refused to accept an earlier compensation package.

Mr. Melkersen’s statements in the film, argue VW’s lawyers, are accompanied by provocative images and sounds, including “the desperate cries of panic-stricken monkeys” (one of the ironies of this is that the tests used VW cars with emissions-cheat software installed). Arguing that the cases should be postponed, VW’s legal team say the Netflix film and Mr. Melkersen’s many media appearances make a fair trial impossible at this time. They even quote Mr. Melkersen himself, who admits in the documentary that the jurors hearing about the tests “could really affect the case.”

Speaking to Handelsblatt, Mr. Melkersen denied Volkswagen’s accusations, saying the opinions he gave were accurate, but that the film itself was not his responsibility. “I was interviewed for hours, and I didn’t decide what would be used of that footage,” he said. Even after the film, he says it shouldn’t be a problem to find numerous uninfluenced jurors. He says Volkswagen is merely using it as an excuse to delay the trial, which is due to begin on February 26.

What is clear is that news of the testing triggered strong reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. Volkswagen’s own CEO, Matthias Müller, called the tests “unethical and revolting.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made similar remarks. The testing was commissioned by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, or EUGT, a lobby group set up by carmakers VW, Daimler and BMW, all of whom have apologized and distanced themselves from the lobby group.

Mr. Melkerson does admit one thing: He has no intention of referring to the Nazis during the actual trial: “That would be inappropriate,” he said.

Handelsblatt Global has reached out to Jigsaw Productions, the production company behind “Dirty Money”, and Netflix and will update when we receive a response.

Thomas Jahn is Handelsblatt’s New York bureau chief. Brían Hanrahan and Christopher Cermak adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: jahn@handelsblatt.com

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