Well, Volkswagen (VW) heard it last week ̶ loud and clear! Much of the auto industry’s recent discussion on whistleblower exposure has centered on the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act (MVSWA) that was signed into law in December of 2015 as part of the “FAST” Act. The MVSWA incentivizes automotive industry insiders to come forward with information regarding potential vehicle safety defects by offering the possibility of sizeable rewards. However, it’s important that auto companies understand that federal law is not the only whistleblower law they need to worry about, as VW recently discovered.
On March 8, 2016, a former Volkswagen employee filed a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court, alleging that Volkswagen wrongfully terminated him in violation of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act. Under the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act, it is illegal for an employer in Michigan to:
threaten, or otherwise discriminate against an employee regarding the employee's compensation, terms, conditions, location, or privileges of employment because the employee, or a person acting on behalf of the employee, reports or is about to report, verbally or in writing, a violation or a suspected violation of a law or regulation or rule promulgated pursuant to law of this state, a political subdivision of this state, or the United States to a public body, unless the employee knows that the report is false.
Yet, that is exactly what the former VW employee claims. According to his complaint, the employee alleges that he was fired because Volkswagen believed that he was about to report the “spoliation of evidence and obstruction of justice to the EPA and/or the United States Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other public body.”
While the MVWSA’s whistleblower provisions will not apply where the conduct at issue does not relate to a potential safety defect, automotive employers are not immune from whistleblower liability and may still be found liable under state whistleblower laws, as is clear from the suit filed against VW.
To learn more about the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act and other aspects of the FAST Act or the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act, please contact the Automotive Industry Practice Group at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP.