Former Volkswagen employee James Liang was sentenced in Detroit on Friday to serve 40 months in prison and pay a $200,000 fine for his role in the global Volkswagen diesel-emission cheating scandal.
It was a stiffer sentence than expected for an engineer who helped to create software that controlled exhaust emissions only when Volkswagen and Audi's TDI diesel cars detected they were being tested on rolling roads.
Prosecutors had recommended, according to The Detroit News, a sentence of three years in federal prison and a fine of $20,000.
Defense attorneys had suggested the 63-year-old engineer should receive home confinement and a nominal fee instead.
The tough sentence appears to send a message from U.S. District Judge Sean Cox that employees can and should be held accountable for misdeeds they commit for their corporate employers.
“We haven’t seen many individuals being held responsible for corporate misconduct," Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor Peter Henning told the News, "so this is one of those rare cases.”
Consumer Reports tests 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel in 'cheat mode,' October 2015 [video frame]
The sentence makes it even less likely that six VW Group executives also indicted for their roles in the diesel scandal will ever return to the U.S.
Germany does not normally extradite its citizens to other countries, so they were not expected to face trial; Liang's sentence makes that possibility even more remote.
VW Group is now buying back and modifying more than 400,000 2.0-liter TDI turbodiesel Volkswagen and Audi models sold in the U.S. from 2008 through 2015.
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Those cars will be resold as used cars once they have been updated in various ways, including major changes to their powertrain control software to remove "defeat device" routines that let some models emit up to 35 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides.
With a guilty plea earlier this year from Volkswagen itself, the U.S. part of the diesel scandal that erupted in September 2015 is slowly winding to a close.
The issue of corporate cheating on diesel emissions in more than 10 million diesel vehicles sold by six different makers in Europe remains very much in the forefront, however.
2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI
Not only VW Group's many brands but also Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, and other German makers are now modifying recent diesel vehicles in EU countries to reduce their emissions.
Moreover, several of those makers have launched buyback programs and incentives to get owners to trade in the oldest, dirtiest diesel cars for newer vehicles with modern exhaust aftertreatment systems.
European controls on emissions from diesel cars lagged those in the U.S. by almost a decade, and only as of this year do diesels sold in the EU have to meet standards roughly equivalent to those in effect in the U.S. since January 2008.
Meanwhile, Liang's sentence may point to an equally tough fate for Volkswagen executive Oliver Schmidt.
He is the seventh indicted VW executive, and the only one to face prosecution; he was arrested in January following a vacation in Florida.
Schmidt pleaded guilty to several VW diesel-scandal charges on August 4, and will remain in the country until his sentence is handed down on December 6.
[hat tip: John Briggs]