U.S. seeks major fines against Fiat Chrysler

on Feb4

A Jeep 3.0-liter, V-6 EcoDiesel engine on display at the Washington Auto Show in Jan. 22, 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS

UPDATED: 2/2/18 8:20 pm ET – adds details

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has offered to settle a lawsuit over emissions violations against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV if the carmaker recalls 104,000 vehicles and pays a substantial but unspecified civil penalty.

The proposed framework of an offer was extended to the Italian-American automaker last week and included steps it would have to take to mitigate past pollution and internal changes to prevent future violations of environmental rules, according to a copy of the settlement offer obtained by Bloomberg News.

The settlement “must include very substantial civil penalties” large enough to deter future violations and that “adequately reflect the seriousness of the conduct that led to these violations,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in a Jan. 27 letter to Fiat Chrysler attorneys.

Spokesmen for the company had no immediate comment.

Fiat Chrysler shares fell as much as 14 percent on the news and closed down 7.2 percent to $22.30 at 4 p.m. ET in New York trading, the biggest one-day drop since January, 2017, amid a broad selloff in stocks.

Reaching a final settlement would resolve civil violations of clean-air regulations laid out in a complaint filed May 23. The Justice Department said Fiat Chrysler had used illegal software to pass laboratory emissions tests while permitting its diesel vehicles to exceed pollution standards while on the road.

The proposed settlement doesn’t include an end to a criminal investigation into the automaker by the Justice Department related to diesel emissions.

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The civil complaint was filed in federal court on behalf of the EPA and the California Air Resources Board and alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

A recall fix would have to bring all its vehicles into full compliance with emissions standards, according to the Justice Department letter. The case involves diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs and Ram 1500 pickups from model years 2014-16 that regulators allege were sold with emission software that violated U.S. clean-air rules.

The case followed one filed in late 2015 against Volkswagen AG. That case touched off the biggest scandal in modern automotive history when it admitted that about 11 million diesel cars worldwide were outfitted with so-called defeat devices — embedded algorithms used to game emissions tests.

Marchionne’s ‘unadulterated hogwash’

Unlike Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler has steadfastly denied intentional wrongdoing. Sergio Marchionne, the company’s CEO, was outraged when the EPA brought its initial notice of violation against the automaker last year, calling the allegations “unadulterated hogwash.”

The settlement letter cites “compelling evidence” that Fiat Chrysler knew or had reason to believe that the vehicles did not comply with clean-air rules and that the company misled regulators, calling the conduct “egregious.”

“We are engaging in conversations but I’m not involved in the settlement talks,” Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, said Friday at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance event in Palo Alto. “It’s interesting that Fiat Chrysler has the same team of lawyers representing them that worked with VW.”

The sides have been in talks for months under the direction of court-appointed settlement master Kenneth Feinberg. Feinberg declined to comment.

FCA letter

Fiat Chrysler has acknowledged in a term sheet the company earlier submitted to the government lawyers the need for a settlement to include civil penalties, an emissions fix for the diesel vehicles and environmental mitigation efforts, the letter said. The automaker proposed committing to projects to promote low- or zero-emissions “mobility projects” in the December term sheet, which the Justice Department said regulators would be willing to consider.

But, the letter cautioned, such projects are not the same as penalties and the government believes a “very substantial civil penalty payment is an essential element” of any deal to resolve the case. The parties have not yet discussed the value of any fines, according to a person familiar with the talks.

A recall would have to bring all of FCA’s vehicles into full compliance with emissions standards, the letter said. The case involves diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs and Ram 1500 pickups from model years 2014-2016 that regulators allege were sold with emission software that violated U.S. clean-air rules. 

The case followed one filed in late 2015 against Volkswagen AG. That case touched off the biggest scandal in modern automotive history when VW admitted that about 11 million diesel cars worldwide were outfitted with so-called defeat devices — embedded algorithms used to game emissions tests. 

Estimated costs

VW’s costs from the scandal have reached about $31 billion in fines and related elements. FCA would likely pay less because Clean Air Act violations are assessed on the number vehicles affected. VW admitted to rigging more than 500,000 cars in the U.S. — about five times the number Fiat Chrysler is alleged to have cheated with — and did so over a longer period of time.

And unlike in the VW settlement, the terms under discussion between FCA and the U.S. don’t include a requirement to buy back any vehicles.

The diesel issue could cost Fiat Chrysler between $460 million and more than $1 billion, according to estimates made last year by Barclays Plc, Mediobanca SpA and Evercore ISI. 

In December, Marchionne said he anticipated “manageable costs” from the diesel issue. 



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