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Complaints about Subaru Outback's lights preceded class action

By Taryn Phaneuf | May 25, 2016

Subaru outback

LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) — The federal agency responsible for taking consumer complaints about vehicle defects has recorded roughly 90 complaints about 2010 and 2011 Subaru Outbacks whose exterior lights allegedly fail frequently and prematurely.

In a November complaint, a driver claims his or her 2011 Outback needed headlamp bulbs changed every six weeks. In a more recent complaint, a driver replaced headlight bulbs four times in two years. Additional complaints note the difficulty of replacing the bulbs.

“This is getting (frustrating) and I do not hear or see ... a recall for the problem," a driver said in another complaint from December. "I see a lot of complaints, but again, no recalls to fix the problem. Subaru keeps taking my money to fix the problem. Will not be buying anymore Subarus."

That complaint and others were found on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website,

A class action lawsuit was filed in April by a California customer over the alleged design or manufacturing defect that drivers claim has required them to replace exterior lightbulbs too often.

Plaintiff Kathleen O'Neill claims the defect stems from “interference within the lighting assembly and overvoltage in the lighting circuits.” She accuses Subaru of breaching its implied warranty, unjust enrichment, and violating the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act and its Unfair Competition Law.

O’Neill also claims that Subaru knew about the defect in 2009, but the manufacturer never offered a permanent solution to the problem.

The defect affects more than the headlights, according to complaints. The problem occurs with other exterior lighting components, as well, including low-beam headlamps, side marker lights, turn signal lights, tail and brake light assemblies, license plate lights and parking lamps, according to the suit.

The lawsuit claims the defect makes driving the vehicle unsafe for the driver and other drivers on the road, and consumers end up having to pay more to replace the exterior bulbs.

The NHTSA reviews each complaint of vehicle safety problems. It may issue a recall if it determines that a defect in a group of vehicles of the same model or manufacturer puts drivers at risk. A manufacturer can also issue a recall independent of the NHTSA.

The degree of risk to safety that triggers an NHTSA recall is often “uncertain or quite remote,” Peter Masaitis, a partner in Alston & Bird’s Los Angeles office who focuses his practice partially on product liability claims, told Legal Newsline. 

Masaitis isn’t involved in the suit against Subaru, though he said it offers an example of a potential defect that poses an unlikely risk of harm to the driver.

“The failure of exterior lighting could potentially play a factor in a nighttime accident, but the chances are fairly remote," he said. "And, though the claim is that the lighting in these cars fails prematurely, every automobile poses the same potential safety risk by virtue of the fact that all bulbs eventually fail.

"It appears that the Subaru lawsuit is less about genuine safety concerns, and more about the inconvenience and consumption of time experienced by owners like the named plaintiff, who made repeated trips to the dealership.”

A recall isn’t the only option available to address an issue. Auto manufacturers can send a technical service bulletin (TSB) to dealerships, Masaitis said.

“A less serious problem with a car – one that does not warrant a recall - can be confirmed by the dealership pursuant to a TSB while the car is in for service, and addressed usually at no charge to the customer,” he said.

"In the event of ‘one-off’ complaints raised by customers, manufacturers and their dealers differ on how they address the issue, but will generally investigate the complaint through their dealerships’ service techs with an eye toward both fixing that customer’s issue and identifying whether a broader problem exists in that model car.”

It doesn’t appear that Subaru issued such a bulletin for this alleged defect.

The timing of the lawsuit coincides with a major Subaru recall for a steering system defect. Owners of 2016 and 2017 Subaru Legacy and Outback vehicles were warned that the steering wheel could have no effect on the wheels’ direction. Subaru told owners to stop driving their cars right away. The company recalled approximately 48,500 sedans and crossovers, according to reports.

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Organizations in this Story

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration