Monkey Trials Small-town American lawyer takes on VW

Michael Melkersen has become a celebrity after his revelation that Volkswagen tested diesel fumes on laboratory apes.
A Volkswagen diesel in California.

He’s a small town American lawyer with a huge German target in his sights. Michael Melkersen, who practices in suburban New Market, Virginia, is representing about 300 clients who are suing Volkswagen individually because they bought diesel cars when VW was caught cheating on emissions tests.

Volkswagen has already settled with around 500,000 US customers and paid compensation of around $10 billion in an international scandal known as Dieselgate. But Mr. Melkersen’s clients believe they will get more by bringing individual suits against the company.

Mr. Melkersen has an ace up his sleeve: he discovered in pretrial research that Volkswagen paid scientists in the US to test the effect of toxic pollution from diesel cars on a group of laboratory monkeys that were kept in a confined space watching cartoons while breathing the noxious gases.

The revelation of the monkey experiments has caused a worldwide storm of outrage, drawing comparisons with the Nazis use of poison gas in concentration camps. As a piece of evidence against Volkswagen it was a blockbuster.

“I found out about it six months ago,” he told Handelsblatt. “Thousands of hours of research and many sleepless nights are behind me.”

Mr. Melkersen’s revelations about the monkey research, already part of a documentary film and featured prominently in the New York Times, has propelled him to celebrity status on talk shows across America.

While Volkswagen executives condemned the study using monkeys, the company is using its legal might to keep the information away from the juries in the upcoming trials. It claims the topic is so emotional that it will unfairly bias juries against the firm.

But Mr. Melkersen said he will press ahead to get the evidence introduced in the courts. “Volkswagen was always involved in the monkey experiments,” he said.


Stefan Menzel is the managing editor of Handelsblatt's website and closely follows the car industry. To contact the author: [email protected]