Volkswagen Case Gives Judge, Onetime Aspiring Actor, Role of a Lifetime

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Charles R. Breyer, the federal judge in San Francisco overseeing the class-action lawsuits brought by American car owners against Volkswagen, in his chambers last week. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — As Volkswagen faced a court-mandated deadline to reach an agreement with regulators on a plan to fix its polluting diesel cars last month, one lawyer for the German automaker mentioned that he had probably never worked harder in his career.

“I’m optimistic that you’ll be able to break your record in the next month,” Charles R. Breyer, the federal judge presiding over the hearing in San Francisco, replied. “That’s my goal.”

Judge Breyer, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuits brought by American car owners, then gave Volkswagen until April 21 to present a proposal as the first step in the litigation. The company admitted in September to installing software on diesel vehicles to cheat on emissions tests, but hundreds of thousands of its cars remain on American roads, spewing excess pollution.

If Volkswagen does not present a plan that is approved by regulators by Thursday, it could conceivably face a trial before Judge Breyer this summer.

“He’s put the hammer down, and he’s said, ‘I want to know what Volkswagen’s answer is,’ ” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who studies federal multidistrict litigation. The judge, he added, is “not in the mood for stalling, that’s for sure.”

Widely described by lawyers in California as fair, pragmatic and creative, the judge, the younger brother of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, holds sway over whether and how Volkswagen fixes the cars and how vehicle owners will be compensated.

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How Volkswagen Is Grappling With Its Diesel Deception

Volkswagen has admitted that 11 million of its vehicles were equipped with software that was used to cheat on emissions tests. The company is now contending with the fallout.

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Judge Breyer, 74, who says he has no ambitions to be appointed to a higher court, is presiding over complex litigation involving hundreds of thousands of car owners who want the company to fix their cars or buy them back, as well as civil suits brought by car dealers and by the Department of Justice.

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