State consumer regulators and the attorney general sued the automaker Nissan North America on Monday, charging that the company had deliberately concealed from owners of some of their Maxima models that its ultrabright xenon headlamps were a popular target for thieves.
For more than a year, said the state complaint filed in Superior Court in Somerset County, the company knew that adept thieves could remove the headlamps in as little as a minute and a half and then resell the xenon bulbs for up to $250 in a thriving and shady aftermarket. Meanwhile, owners of the vehicles and their insurance companies were left to pay the cost of replacing the headlamps.
The New Jersey attorney general, Peter Harvey, said the lawsuit charges that the company did not notify the owners of the 2002 and 2003 models that were the most frequent theft targets. Instead, he said, it sent out just two bulletins to its dealers. One of them, in December 2002, announced the availability of customized antitheft kits which should be provided "if a customer requests," at a cost of $175.
Mr. Harvey said that almost a year later, in November 2003, the automaker sent out a general alert to some 46,000 Maxima owners warning them of the rash of thefts. The alert also alerted them, he said, to the availability of free installation of a more generic and less costly "securing bracket" that could thwart thieves. By that time, Mr. Harvey said, most 2003 models had been sold and replaced by 2004 models on dealers' lots.
"We allege the company sold cars with these fancy lights but kept consumers in the dark about how attractive the headlamps were to thieves," said Reni Erdos, director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. "Nissan's actions, or lack thereof, rendered consumers vulnerable to the criminals who targeted their vehicles.''
John Schilling, a spokesman for Nissan, would not comment on the charges in the lawsuit and instead, in a statement, detailed the steps that the automaker is now taking to better secure the headlamps. Noting that the New York metropolitan area had been the center of this criminal activity, the statement said that the steps were being taken "to reduce the likelihood that these crimes will move to other areas where they are not now occurring."
In addition to free retrofit of the securing brackets on the 2002 and 2003 models, the company is planning to use new identification technology to make the stolen headlamps easier to trace to their source.
The xenon headlamps are marketed as producing a bluish light that is 150 percent brighter than halogen bulbs and more like natural sunlight than other headlights. A survey by the consumer affairs agency and the attorney general's office of police reports from 19 municipalities during 2002 and 2003 turned up 756 thefts or attempted thefts of the headlamps from Maxima models.
The lawsuit said that the company's actions on the issue began only in September 2002, when it informed dealers of the availability of repair kits for the problem. Then, in December 2002, dealers were told of the antitheft device. And finally, the complaint charges that it was not until November 2003 that owners were generally informed of the problem and the retrofit. In the meantime, Mr. Harvey said, the automaker participated, in May 2003, in a Newark police symposium on the xenon bulb theft problem.
"We think they were trying to clean up their inventory of 2003 models still on the lots before notifying buyers," Mr. Harvey said.
Mr. Harvey said that the state was seeking restitution to all consumers who had incurred expenses because of the thefts. He added that he expected the number of such thefts would be more than the 756 found in the survey of just 19 towns.