Class Action Charges Nissan with LEAF Greenwash

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Hybrid electric vehicles have frequently been targeted in court, taking flak for alleged greenwashing (see, e.g., here and here) and alleged patent infringement (see, e.g., here and here).

That trend continued and extended to electric plug-in vehicles with a recent class action complaint accusing Nissan of making misleading representations and omissions regarding the LEAF’s battery capacity and driving range.

Filed in federal court in Los Angeles by representative Plaintiffs Humberto Daniel Klee and David Wallak, the complaint alleges that the 100 miles per charge advertised driving range of the LEAF is based on a fully charged battery when the automaker recommends charging the battery only up to 80% to avoid damage:

Unbeknownst to purchasers, the advertised driving range is based on the vehicle’s performance only after fully charging the battery to 100% capacity. In fact, however, charging the battery to 100% causes battery damage, and Nissan expressly recommends that owners not charge their vehicles to 100% in order to maximize battery life and that the battery be charged to only 80% capacity.

The class action also alleges that the LEAF’s battery system has a design defect in that it lacks an active thermal management system to circulate cooling fluid through the battery array, a system that comparable vehicles such as the Chevy Volt, Toyota RAV4 EV and the Ford Focus use. According to Plaintiffs, this defect leads to battery damage and loss of capacity:

The lack of an adequate active cooling system is a design defect that fails to adequately cool the batteries, causing the batteries to suffer heat-related damage and causing premature battery capacity loss, well in excess of Nissan’s own guidelines.

More particularly, the complaint says the LEAF owner’s manual indicates the vehicle may lose 20% of battery capacity over five years of operation while class members’ vehicles are losing over 27.5% battery capacity within the first 1-2 years of operation. This problem is especially pronounced in warm climates. The class action also alleges that Nissan expressly excluded loss of battery capacity under its 8-year / 100,00 mile battery warranty.

The complaint quotes a Wired Magazine article in which a Nissan product planner says the automaker elected to forgo active thermal management of the battery pack because it would have required a central tunnel on top of the pack, which would have intruded on cabin space and split the rear bench into two seats with a hump in the middle.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is also cited for his critique of the LEAF prior to its launch. According to the complaint, in 2009 Musk called the car’s thermal management system “primitive” and predicted the battery would suffer “huge degradation” in cold environments and “shut off” in hot ones.

To my knowledge, this is the first greenwashing lawsuit targeting an all electric plug-in vehicle. It’s unlikely to be the last.

Eric Lane is a patent attorney at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at elane@mckennalong.com

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Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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