The U.S. Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit Monday against Volkswagen AG for installing illegal software to make diesel engines meet federal emissions standards in 600,000 suspect vehicles.
A Justice Department statement described the complaint as "the first stage in bringing Volkswagen to justice" for failing to disclose what it said was a digital "defeat device" installed in the vehicles. It also described the civil complaint as a move toward the eventual assessment of civil penalties, and said it does not preclude the possibility of criminal charges against the auto giant.
VW did not immediately comment on the lawsuit, which could eventually cost it billions of dollars in fines.
The company first admitted in September that the cheat software was included in its diesel cars and sports utility vehicles sold since the 2009 model year. VW is currently negotiating with U.S. regulators for a massive, mandatory recall of the vehicles.
Investigators said the software recognized when emission tests were under way, and then activated bogus emissions controls to deceive testing officials. Findings also showed the same cars then emitted up to 40 times the permissible pollutants when returned to the open road.
VW is also facing a host of private lawsuits from irate diesel car owners seeking compensation for the decreased resale value of the Volkswagen and Audi vehicles that under-reported emissions.