ST. LOUIS — If Hyundai and Kia don’t do something to curb the epidemic of thefts involving their vehicles by Sept. 19, the City of St. Louis will be filing a lawsuit against them, according to a memo from the city counselor obtained by the I-Team.
“With this letter, the city demands that Kia and Hyundai mitigate the defective conditions providing thieves – including teenagers as young as 13 – the instrumentalities by which they are destroying property, endangering city drivers and themselves, and, in some cases, committing violent felonies,” according to the letter written Aug. 19 by City Counselor Sheena Hamilton.
"Kia and Hyundai's defective vehicles have caused a public safety crisis in the city, endangering the health, safety, and peace of all those who live, work or visit the city. Your companies bear the responsibility to mitigate the public nuisance your negligence has created for the city and its residents," the letter said.
Mayor Tishaura Jones told the I-Team the only thing the automakers can do to avoid a lawsuit from the city is to recall all of the affected vehicles and install the immobilizing technology they lack.
Police say thieves are breaking into some Hyundais and Kias that do not have push-button starts, and using USB cords as keys. Hyundais made between 2015 and 2021 and Kias made between 2011 and 2021 are affected.
“KIA and Hyundai have failed to install the proper mechanisms to make their cars non-stealable, and that is taking a taxing resource on our public safety department right now,” Jones said.
In the city's demand letter, Hamilton cited several examples of high-profile crimes the stolen cars have been involved in.
"Just this month, a stolen Kia Optima and a stolen Hyundai Sonata were involved in a mid-day shootout near a busy intersection south of downtown, in which a 17-year-old was shot and a bullet entered an occupied apartment," Hamilton wrote. "A stolen Hyundai Elantra and stolen Kia Optima were involved in a shooting in which six other vehicles were shot and damaged on June 26, 2022."
The thefts have become a nationwide problem, as the thieves have been sharing their methods on social media.
In St. Louis alone, more than 1,800 Hyundais and Kias have been stolen so far this year – 1,200 of them in the months of July and August alone, according to the police department.
Hamilton included some of the statistics in her demand letter.
That’s about a 1,000% increase in one year.
“In July, the city averaged 21 Kia and Hyundai vehicle thefts per day, and that rate is only increasing as the days and weeks that Kia and Hyundai both fail and refuse to remedy this public nuisance march on,” she wrote.
This time last year, St. Louis police said 183 Hyundais and Kias were reported stolen.
Both automakers have issued statements saying they are sending steering wheel locks, most commonly known as Clubs, to police departments affected by the thefts. So far, Hyundai Motor America has sent 100 steering wheel locks to the St. Louis Police Department. Kia has not sent any, but a local Kia dealership donated 50 to the department.
Police held a giveaway and also sold 100 steering wheel locks at cost. In all, 250 steering wheel locks were gone in less than two hours, according to the department.
Auto parts stores have told the I-Team they're having a hard time keeping the steering wheel locks in stock.
Even some cars with the immobilizing technology are being targeted. One man who rented a Hyundai from Enterprise told the I-Team, thieves didn't know the car had the technology until after they broke the window, busted the ignition and tried to start it with a USB cord.
In a statement, Hyundai Motor America wrote: "We recently received the letter from the City of St. Louis and are preparing a formal response. Our vehicles are not defective and comply with all applicable safety regulations."
Hyundai Motor America also plans to make aftermarket security kits available for purchase at authorized installers starting on October 1. The security kit will apply to 2016-2021 Hyundai vehicles without an engine immobilizer, according to the company's statement.
That's why for Jones, steering wheel locks aren’t enough.
“People don't always use clubs, and I think that that's a stopgap to a measure that should have been installed in the car when they built it,” Jones said.
Should St. Louis file suit, it will add to the pile of litigation stacking up against the automakers related to the thefts.
At least eight class action lawsuits have been filed in states across the country – including in Illinois and Missouri – by Hyundai and Kia owners.
In court filings responding to a lawsuit in Milwaukee, Wis., attorneys for Hyundai and Kia wrote that their vehicles are not defective, consumers did not opt for higher trim levels that included the immobilizers and that just because thieves have chosen to steal them doesn’t make their products defective.
Hamilton disagreed in her demand letter.
“Kia and Hyundai's failure to install engine immobilizers enables thieves – often juveniles – to steal those vehicles in a matter of seconds, and, because of this failure, the City is on pace to surpass the total number of vehicle thefts for the entire 2021 calendar year by the end of August 2022,” she wrote.
Dr. Dan Isom described the extent of the problem at the Downtown Engagement and Public Safety Initiative update Monday: