A federal judge in Los Angeles refused on Monday to throw out a class action against Toyota Motor Corp. over defective headlights on their Prius vehicles.
The case alleges that Toyota failed to inform consumers that the headlights on recent-model Priuses can sporadically turn on and off, creating a safety hazard.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real concluded that the plaintiffs sufficiently allege that the defect could pose an "unreasonable safety risk" to consumers.
The claims are unrelated to separate allegations involving sudden unintended acceleration; Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles and faces more than 200 lawsuits in multidistrict litigation involving those alleged defects.
"Lots of people feel this is a safety hazard," said Melissa Harnett, a partner at Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Esensten in Los Angeles, one of the plaintiffs lawyers in the headlight case, following arguments on Monday. "We think it's just as much of a safety defect [as the acceleration problem] because the law requires operating headlights."
The suit, which was filed in May 2009, is one of three class actions pending against Toyota over defective Prius headlights. A second action, filed on Feb. 16, has been joined with the first. A third case, filed in August 2009, is pending in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a proposed class of consumers who purchased the optional high-intensity discharge, or HID, headlight system for their 2006 through 2010 Priuses. The standard Prius is equipped with halogen headlights.
Although Toyota has not acknowledged the headlight failures, more than 1,000 consumers have filed complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to the amended complaint, which was filed in December 2009. The agency opened a preliminary investigation but declined to order a recall, according to the amended complaint.
The suit alleges that dealerships, upon learning of the problem, either have done nothing or replaced the headlight systems with "equally defective parts" at costs of up to $1,800.
Meanwhile, they claim, the headlights present a considerable safety risk to consumers.
"These intermittent headlight failures are repeated and unpredictable, resulting in a great deal of confusion and concern for Prius owners," plaintiffs attorneys wrote in their amended complaint. "Reasonable consumers, like Plaintiffs, expect and assume that a vehicle's headlights are safe and will not suddenly and repeatedly shut off during use."
The suit seeks restitution for a nationwide class under California's Unfair Competition Law and its Consumers Legal Remedies Act.
In a motion to dismiss, Toyota's lawyers argued that most of the alleged defects occurred at least one year after the plaintiffs purchased their vehicles -- often after the warranty period expired.
"Although not expressly alleged, Plaintiffs apparently believe that their HID headlights should operate for some undisclosed period of time beyond Toyota's express warranty covering Plaintiffs' Prius vehicles," Toyota's lawyers wrote in their dismissal motion. "Toyota brings this Motion to Dismiss because headlights are clearly maintenance parts on a vehicle that have a finite life and will likely fail at some point during the useful life of the vehicles; and thus, Plaintiffs' claims are fatally flawed."
Toyota's lawyers questioned the risks posed by headlight failures.
"Headlight failure, while posing a potential safety risk if such failure involves both headlights simultaneously at night, does not present an unreasonably dangerous condition because headlight failure is a known and inevitable risk that every vehicle operator accepts when operating any vehicle with any type of headlight at night," they wrote. (Italics in the original.)
A lawyer for Toyota, Michael Mallow, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Loeb & Loeb, declined to comment.