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N.J. sues Nissan over highly coveted headlights

By George E. Jordan
(Newark) Star-Ledger

New Jersey yesterday sued Nissan North American for allegedly failing to warn consumers about the epidemic theft of high-intensity headlights on its Maximas.

The lawsuit also accuses Nissan of profiteering from the sale of headlight replacements, which cost $1,800 a pair, and antitheft devices that the state said should have been provided for free.

"Nissan knew that its headlights were being stolen from its cars and did not notify consumers," said state Attorney General Peter Harvey. "These were being stolen with impunity, in some cases in less then 90 seconds."

The lawsuit in Superior Court in Somerset County makes New Jersey the first state to take action against an automobile manufacturer in the rash of thefts occurring around the nation of bright, blue-tinted headlights, also known as xenon lights.

The lights have joined fancy rims and expensive sound systems on the list of car accessories coveted by thieves. The burgeoning black market for xenon bulbs has law enforcement officials across the country searching for ways to stop the thefts, which are targeted mostly at 2002 and 2003 Maximas.

New Jersey's lawsuit, meanwhile, accuses Nissan of violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act and seeks restitution of an undetermined amount of insurance premiums and repair costs. The company said it had taken efforts to help consumers.

"While nothing can completely eliminate the thefts of parts from vehicles, we believe the proactive steps taken by Nissan will help deter criminals from stealing headlights from our customers' Maximas," the company's statement read.

Nissan recently launched an identification program in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where Maxima owners can have an identification number printed on a small chip affixed to their highlights so law enforcement can recognize stolen headlights in auto chop shops.

Company spokesman John Schilling declined comment on the core allegations in New Jersey's lawsuit: The automaker knew about the pattern of thefts long before it warned customers and offered a free securing kit that provided less protection than the antitheft kit customers had to purchase.

A survey by New Jersey officials found 756 thefts or attempted thefts of the moon-blue lights from 2002 or 2003 Maximas over the past two years. Newark led the state with 277, followed by Bloomfield with 135, Jersey City with 108 and Butler with 50.

The total included 50 pairs of headlights stolen in December from a Nissan dealership on Route 22 in Hillside.

Hillside police Capt. John Frize said thieves made off with the equipment in less than an hour, causing about $200,000 in damage. "I really don't know what could be done to stop this. I just know, and I've also heard from other agencies, that it takes as little as 10 to 12 seconds to get the assembly out," he said. "All you've got to do is put in a crowbar, pry it, snip the plastic and metal, and you got it."

Jose Cabezudo, an emergency room assistant at Mountainside Hospital, said the headlights were stolen from his 2002 Maxima on two separate occasions, once outside a movie theater and the second time in Mountainside's parking lot.

"My insurance paid for the repairs, but that's not the point," he said. "It's traumatizing when you come out of work and your headlights are gone. It's a hassle. I don't even drive the car. My car is in a garage. It's not safe anywhere."

After the second theft, Cabezudo said, he unsuccessfully pleaded with Nissan to install the cheaper, less-coveted halogen light bulbs. "I was willing to install some other headlight, but they said all they could do was install the same lights," he said.

High Intensity Discharge headlights emit light so close to sunlight that it looks blue. They provide about three times the light output of standard halogen headlights while using less energy and generating less heat.

The special bulb has no filament like the conventional halogen light bulb. Instead, the light is created by high-voltage electricity that charges xenon gas between the two electrodes inside a sealed tube.

The thieves, authorities said, resell the stolen bulbs on the street to street racers and car modification enthusiasts who view the piercing blue glow is a status symbol.

Nissan said it began an antitheft initiative last fall, sending letters to consumers informing them that they can bring their Maximas to a dealer where a bracket would be installed, free of charge, to make the headlights more difficult to steal.

But the lawsuit alleges that a year earlier – Sept. 26, 2002 – a service bulletin went to its technicians about an antitheft connector kit available for headlight assemblies damaged by theft.

Two months later, the complaint alleges, Nissan sent out another bulletin to service reps informing them that a $175 antitheft deterrent was available "if a customer requests" and "for customer pay only."

The lawsuit does not name other automakers whose headlights also are frequently stolen, including Acura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Porshe and Mercedes-Benz.