Aaron Dunifon was driving his family of four home to Ohio from vacation last June in their 2015 Honda Odyssey when they were surprised by a loud “pop.” The sunroof glass had shattered for no apparent reason, Dunifon says. Although nobody was hurt, it was alarming.

Since the car was still under warranty, Duniform says he tried to get his local Honda dealership to assume the cost of replacement, roughly $500. The dealership refused.

Dunifon, 36, of Miamisburg, Ohio, had an advantage most consumers don’t enjoy when they’re confronted with this unexpected issue. His father is a retired automotive glass engineer who had witnessed similar spontaneous breakage at glass plants where he worked.

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“I started reading up on this and the more we read, the more we realized that this thing just exploded,” Dunifon says. So he tapped into his father’s experience, did some online research, and started building a case, which he filed against the company in small claims court, for a fee of $50.

Aaron reached out to Consumer Reports after he read our October 12, 2017 investigation into exploding sunroofs. It found that an exploding sunroof isn’t such a freak occurrence after all. CR’s analysis of a federal consumer complaint database identified nearly 900 incidents spanning 208 models and 35 brands, which almost certainly underestimates the true incidence of the problem, since most people never file complaints. 

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About the same time that Dunifon’s small claims case was moving forward, several larger class action lawsuits involving exploding sunroofs, including one in California against the automaker Hyundai, were advancing through the legal system.

Hyundai’s number of shattering incidents stood out in CR’s earlier analysis of federal consumer complaints, as did the number for automaker Kia. After our investigation was published, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released some new data from additional automakers, which the car companies had provided to NHTSA as part of the agency’s ongoing four-year sunroof defect investigation into the Kia Sorento (model years 2011-2013).

CR’s analysis of NHTSA’s new but still limited industry data underscores our original findings. It shows that while several automakers tended to have more sunroof shattering incidents than would be indicated by their overall market share, the two Korean automakers stood out, with shattering rates significantly higher than other car companies.

"The more data we see, the more widespread the problem looks, especially for Hyundai and Kia owners," says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. “Automakers should stop wasting time and money fighting consumers in court. Instead, they should recall defective sunroofs and work together to establish stronger safety standards so consumers won't have to face this problem."

Small Claims Drama

When Dunifon’s case was filed, a certified letter of notice went out to Honda’s U.S. subsidiary, American Honda Motor Co. Before the November court date, Honda offered to settle for half of the repair costs, Dunifon says. He refused, and the case continued.

Once in court, according to Dunifon, the judge explained to the lone Honda representative present, a glass engineer, that because Honda hadn’t sent a lawyer, the company’s defense options were limited. They could present their own case, but could not dispute Dunifon’s account of what happened to his car, or cross-examine him. According to Dunifon, the judge asked the Honda representative if he still wanted to proceed, and the engineer said he did. (CR asked Honda for the name of the engineer who appeared in court, but the automaker declined to provide it.)

Dunifon says he explained his case, going through 107 pages of exhibits he had compiled, including CR's investigation. When the judge asked why he didn’t file an insurance claim, Dunifon explained that he wanted Honda to honor its warranty. The judge also asked if there had been vehicles around or if they had passed under things such as bridges or overpasses—factors that could produce flying road debris. Dunifon said no.

Honda’s presentation in court, which Dunifon later shared with CR, included six pages of exhibits. In one document, the company said it had reviewed Dunifon’s repair history with the dealership and the district parts manager. “Every inspection did not yield evidence of a defect in workmanship or material from the manufacturer,” Honda said. Since its warranty only covers damaged glass caused by a defect in material or workmanship, Honda said it concluded the repair wasn’t covered by the warranty.

Typically, there isn’t a formal record of proceedings in small claims courts. As a result, CR relied on Dunifon’s account and court records, and when possible, tried to confirm facts with Honda.

Honda told CR that while it couldn’t comment on specifics of the case, if the company determined an individual glass breakage was caused by a defect, it would “promptly honor its obligations under the limited warranty.” It also noted that the 2015 Odyssey’s sunroof is a conventional design, not one of the newer, larger, so-called panoramic sunroofs.

And lastly, the company said that while a vehicle owner may dispute the findings of a dealer or Honda representative, “Honda must make decisions based on observable facts, not opinions or conjecture. Regardless of vehicle brand, the vast majority of on-road glass breakage occurs due to damage from road debris. As with other types of vehicle damage, if there is no evidence of a defect, the best course of action for a consumer is to file an insurance claim.”

Honda was one of 13 manufacturers asked to turn over some of its sunroof shattering data to NHTSA. In our analysis, it had the second-lowest rate of shatterings, behind only Volvo, which reported none.

The judge ruled on the spot, in Dunifon’s favor, ordering Honda to pay $597.67, the cost of repair plus court costs.

“They wasted a lot of my time,” Dunifon says. “If they would have just fixed it, they would have saved a lot of money.”

California Class Action Against Hyundai

Automakers are being challenged in more than just small claims courts.

The California case against Hyundai, scheduled for August in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is believed to be the furthest along of about a dozen developing class actions involving exploding sunroofs.

Generally, the sunroof class action suits assert that automakers are failing to protect vehicle owners, knowingly selling vehicles with safety defects, and not honoring warranties. CR has found records of class action lawsuits against automakers such as Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen, among others.

In its official response to the court case, Hyundai denies that its sunroofs have a defect or that it has “failed to warn drivers of any alleged danger.”

In the Hyundai case, consumers are seeking reimbursement for repair costs and compensation for the diminished value of their vehicles. According to the complaint, consumers thought they were buying a car free of safety defects.

The biggest consumer benefit from a possible class action victory would be the potential for a court order or an agreement that might compel Hyundai or the other automakers to admit liability, to fix cars for all affected consumers, and to come up with a safer design, says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group.

“If you want to make a larger point that will change the course of what a manufacturer’s going to do, a class action might be better,” Levine says. “A successful class action frequently leads to changes in behavior." The industry is not acknowledging there’s a problem, Levine says. "We want to see more aggressiveness from NHTSA, but it can’t all be on their backs.”

As is its practice, the federal safety agency declined to discuss the timetable for the culmination of the Sorrento defect investigation, which NHTSA started in 2013, saying only that it takes a proactive approach to safety and “its investigation is ongoing.” And “NHTSA encourages the public to contact us if they have any information or concerns regarding their sunroof through NHTSA.gov or by calling (888) 327-4236.”

When NHTSA reaches a final determination, it will likely either issue a recall or close the case without taking action.