By Jon Hood

June 18, 2010
A class action lawsuit alleges that the high intensity gas discharge (HID) headlight system installed on thousands of Volkswagen and Audi vehicles is at risk of randomly shutting off while the car is in motion, exposing the cars' owners -- and other drivers on the road -- to "significant and unreasonable danger."

The suit says that because of a design or manufacturing defect, the headlights "appear to function normally when first turned on, but will sporadically shut off while the vehicle is being driven.

The suit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, demands that Volkswagen reimburse consumers for money they spent trying to fix the problem.

Volkswagen -- which is Audi's parent company -- is accused of knowing about the defect since at least 2004, but covering it up to avoid liability. The company allegedly told customers who complained about the defect either that theirs was an "isolated issue" that Volkswagen was not required to fix, or that the defect was a mysterious problem that "did not manifest [itself] during consumers' repair visits."

According to the complaint, Volkswagen issued two secret technical service bulletins (TSBs) informing its dealerships of the defect. In the first TSB, dated May 2006, the company tells the dealers to "inspect...connectors for corrosion and clean as necessary," and, if that doesn't work, to replace the headlight (presumably with another defective headlight).

Showing favoritism

The suit says that Volkswagen compounds the problem by replacing the headlights with "equally defective parts, without addressing the root cause of the intermittent headlamp failures," thereby taking its customers' money and still leaving them with a dangerous car.

While the complaint points out that Volkswagen's new car warranty explicitly excludes HID headlights from the standard one-year/12,000 mile coverage, it contends that the automaker instituted a "clandestine program" to reimburse "those consumers who complained loudly enough" about the headlights.

Such preferential treatment is illegal under California's Secret Warranty Act, which prohibits dealerships from making repairs on a case-by-case basis without informing the public at large of the defect.

Even for those consumers who were eventually reimbursed, all that Volkswagen has accomplished is to "prolong the amount of time that will elapse before the [headlights] fail again," the complaint says.

Profit over safety

As a result of its actions, the suit says, Volkswagen "continues to profit while...Class Members are continually subjected to dangerous driving conditions and significant vehicle expenses." The complaint says that, had affected consumers known about the defect when they bought their cars, they would never have opted for the nearly $2,000 headlights in the first place.

The complaint says the defect affects the 2004-2006 Volkswagen Touareg, 2008-2009 Audi TT, 2006-2009 Audi A3, 2005-2007 Audi A4, 2007-2009 Audi A4 Cabriolet, and the 2007 Audi Q7. The suit charges Volkswagen with breach of implied warranty and violation of several California consumer protection statutes.