A consumer lawsuit against Sony in New York claims that the Sony A7 III’s shutter fails with such frequency that it qualifies as a known design flaw, and that Sony misrepresents its reliability when “rating” it for 200,000 actuations. The lawsuit claims that many fail after a few tens of thousands of clicks. This appears to be anecdotally supported by more complaints of shutter failure for this model on internet forums than for other models. There is even an issue-specific Facebook page with more than 1,400 members and some very illustrative images (shown below and above).

Special off-axis shutter technology feature?

Sony, like many foreign manufacturers, has used third party repair centers to handle service issues, so it has less control, and the financial arrangements between the manufacturer and the service center complicate service decisions in terms of how much flexibility can be shown a consumer with a lemon camera. Parceling out individual operating companies by region can help manage currency fluctuations, tax liabilities, profit reporting management, and provide varying levels of service.

All the major camera manufacturers use fudgy language in describing durability features such as shutter longevity. To avoid liability for replacing underperforming parts, they will give a “rating” which is not a guarantee. Similarly, they’ll avoid words such as “waterproof” in favor of less precise terms such as “splash-proof,” which don’t have any actionable meaning. The lawsuit seems to be trying to end-run this linguistic protection by establishing that the performance is poor enough to constitute a known design flaw.

Saving weight with unneeded parts leakage

Its poor service reputation was one of the reasons most often cited as why professional DSLR shooters were refusing to move to Sony mirrorless bodies. In fact, Sony tried to address that issue in 2014 by creating its own professional service support level, modeled after the Canon Professional Service (CPS) model. This doesn’t appear to be a raging success, partly because the same services are not offered, such as lens and body test loans. It also did not help that the sign-up process for Sony professional level of service was broken for some people, and then reaching a Sony service representative then proved impossible for more than a year. To their partial credit, in at least one instance a service representative from Japan did help unlock the professional services application 13 months after initial submission and service request. By that time the professional photographer had switched mounts.

Japanese electronics manufacturers generally suffer from a communications veil between themselves and US customers, not unlike that seen with internet media companies such as Google and Facebook – companies that have considered it impossible to scale personal communications with human users. US operating companies for Japanese camera manufacturers – like many of their world-wide subsidiaries – are really marketing and service organizations for the primary brand.

Canon and Nikon started to break this trend first in the professional market and then later – to some degree – in the consumer market. Their former duopoly in the professional level of camera hardware caused a competitive dynamic requiring high service levels; a dynamic in which Sony was not at the time a participant.

The lawsuit is possibly most significant in that if it progresses to the discovery stage of a trial, documentation of Sony’s reliability data and how it interprets it could theoretically become public. Prior to the lawsuit appearing on the docket, Sony was likely sent threatening attorney letters, and it appears to have assessed either that the threats weren’t serious, or that the precedent of providing a pay-out for this issue would be problematic with future cases. Individual consumers typically recover very little in class action cases, but the lawyers representing them can wind up collecting seven-figure windfalls. Becoming a target of that legal cottage industry is highly undesirable. If Sony quickly settles, it may be more likely it just mis-assessed the seriousness of the attorneys, but if it insists on going to trial, it probably is more worried about future cases. The US division of Sony is named as the defendant.