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St. Louis announces lawsuit against Hyundai, Kia after theft epidemic

Millions of vehicles were made without engine immobilizing technology, leading to out-of-control thefts.

ST. LOUIS — The City of St. Louis announced Monday that it is joining a growing list of cities across the country that are filing lawsuits against Hyundai and Kia following a theft epidemic involving some makes and models of those cars.

Thieves have used social media for about two years now to show how easy some of those cars are to steal using nothing more than a USB cord to start engines that are not protected by immobilizers.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that does not require automakers to install the technology that prevents cars from starting without recognizing computer chips inside car keys.

Thousands of drivers have been left without their cars and thousands of dollars in repairs, and the issue has stretched public safety resources. Some insurance companies have announced they will no longer cover some makes and models of those vehicles.

In the City of St. Louis alone, police reported a 1,300% increase in Kia and Hyundai thefts from 2021 to 2022.

Other cities have seen similar spikes in thefts. Officials in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; San Diego, California; and Seattle, Washington, have filed lawsuits already this year.

Milwaukee was among the first city to report skyrocketing thefts in 2021. In announcing their lawsuit, officials there said they hoped to recover damages for police, fire, public works and other costs taxpayers have had to bear as a result of the thefts, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones threatened to file a lawsuit against the automakers in August, saying they needed to recall the millions of affected vehicles and install the anti-theft technology at no cost to consumers or face the city in court.

City Counselor Sheena Hamilton and the Clayton-based Dowd Bennett law firm filed the lawsuit in federal court, and it is seeking at least $75,000 in damages. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment approved a $50,000 contract with the law firm in February, which lasts for two years and can be extended up to three more years. The lawsuit seeks to recover any attorney's fees the city pays.

Jones made the announcement flanked by Public Safety Director Charles Coyle, St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy and Hamilton. All of them left without answering questions from reporters.

"Simply put, by refusing to follow industry standards, making their cars so easy [to steal] that a child could do it, Kia and Hyundai created a public safety hazard in cities across the country and put a target on the backs of their customers," Jones said.

She added: "It's clear Kia and Hyundai's negligence is not just a St. Louis problem. It is a nationwide public safety crisis."

Jones' spokesman Nick Desideri told 5 On Your Side the matter is part of "active litigation," so no one could comment beyond the prepared remarks. 

The automakers announced in February they were offering free software upgrades to affected models, but spokesmen for the companies told the I-Team it was not a recall.

The companies should issue a recall on the vehicles, according to attorney Matthew Van Fleet. He’s part of the MLG Law Firm in Orange County, California, that is now heading up the dozens of class action lawsuits consumers have filed against the automakers.

A recall would require the automakers to work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which could hold them accountable by measuring whether the fixes are effective and that every driver gets notified, he said.

The automakers argue, however, that their vehicles are not defective, and put the blame on criminals.

In a statement issued Monday, Kia spokesman James Bell wrote in part: "Lawsuits against Kia by municipalities are without merit. Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in St. Louis to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it. Customers should visit https://ksupport.kiausa.com/ConsumerAffairs/SWLD for more information on their eligibility for the upgrade or to learn more about directly obtaining a steering wheel lock."

St. Louis' police chief said Monday Hyundais and Kias account for more than half of all car thefts so far this year.

"From a law enforcement perspective, Kia and Hyundai's negligence with their products have created a public safety hazard for the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department and we're working every single day to address it," he said.

Both automakers have said their products meet all federal safety standards.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, about 3.8 million Hyundais and 4.5 million Kias will get the update, which updates the theft alarm software logic to extend the length of the alarm sound from 30 seconds to one minute and requires the key to be in the ignition switch to turn the vehicle on.

Both automakers said they plan to continue to send steering wheel locks to local police departments for distribution to drivers as well.

The spike in thefts also led insurance companies to deny coverage of Hyundais or Kias.

Progressive and State Farm confirmed to 5 On Your Side that it would not insure the vehicles anymore.

Here are excerpts from statements from the automakers regarding the software upgrades:

From Kia:

"Kia remains deeply concerned that car theft targeting certain models – encouraged by social media content promoting criminal conduct – is an issue. To address these crimes, we continue to roll out a free, enhanced security software upgrade to restrict the unauthorized operation of vehicle ignition systems and we are also providing steering wheel locks for impacted owners at no cost through local law enforcement agencies. 

"To date, Kia has already contacted nearly 1.5 million owners and lessees of Kia vehicles to let them know of the availability of the software upgrade and to advise them to schedule a free installation at any Kia dealer. We have also shipped or are in the process of shipping over 27,000 free steering wheel locks to over 140 law enforcement agencies across the country, including close to 1,500 locks to police departments in the St. Louis area, and we will continue to provide additional free locks as needed. All Kia vehicles are subject to and comply fully with rigorous testing rules and regulations outlined in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, including under FMVSS 114 that governs ignition security systems and theft protection.”

Customers should visit https://ksupport.kiausa.com/ConsumerAffairs/SWLD for more information on their eligibility for the upgrade or to learn more about directly obtaining a steering wheel lock.

From Hyundai: 

"Hyundai Motor America is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products.

"In response to increasing and persistent thefts targeting our vehicles without push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices in the United States, Hyundai: 

(1) made engine immobilizers standard on all vehicles produced as of November 2021. 

(2) introduced a free software upgrade to prevent the method of theft involved.

(3) rolled the software upgrade out to more than 1 million customers, with the remaining approximately 3 million affected customers to be eligible for the upgrade within the coming weeks. 

(4) initiated a program to reimburse affected customers for their purchase of steering wheel locks. 

(5) continues to provide free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies across the country for distribution to local residents who own or lease affected models.

Read the city's legal complaint against the automakers below:

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