By Jim Salter
A federal lawsuit filed Monday by the city of St. Louis accuses automakers Kia and Hyundai of failing to install industry-standard anti-theft technology, resulting in thousands of vehicle thefts in the Missouri city.
The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $75,000 plus punitive damages. St. Louis joins several other cities that have filed similar lawsuits, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle.
Kias and Hyundais have been targeted since a TikTok social media challenge put a spotlight on the vehicles’ lack of an immobilizer, showing viewers how to hot-wire cars with a USB cord and a screwdriver. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the thefts have resulted in at least 14 crashes and eight fatalities across the U.S.
"Defendants’ careless disregard for the safety of the public has created a public nuisance in the City of St. Louis, resulting in an explosion of auto-related crime that is injuring citizens, taxing St. Louis’s resources, and jeopardizing the public health, safety, and peace of all who live, work, and visit St. Louis," the lawsuit states.
Kia said in a statement that the lawsuits by St. Louis and other cities 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,” the company said.
Hyundai Motor America “is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products,” the company said in a statement.
St. Louis police have received more than 4,500 reports of thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles over the past 10 months, and three-fifths of all vehicle thefts in that span have involved Kias or Hyundais, the city said.
The lawsuit cited several incidents involving stolen Kias and Hyundais. In August, occupants of a stolen Kia Optima and a stolen Hyundai Sonata were involved in a shootout near downtown in which a 17-year-old was shot. In September, a bicyclist was struck and killed by a speeding Kia that had been stolen.
Last month, both automakers rolled out software updates aimed at stemming the raft of thefts. The updates are free for millions of vehicles that are missing a key anti-theft device. The software 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.
About 3.8 million Hyundais and 4.5 million Kias are eligible for the software update, the NHTSA said.
In addition to the software update, Kia said it is shipping more than 27,000 free steering wheel locks to over 140 law enforcement agencies, including nearly 1,500 to police in the St. Louis area, “and we will continue to provide additional free locks as needed.”
Hyundai said engine immobilizers became standard on all vehicles in November 2021. The company said it also provides free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies to distribute to those who own or lease affected models, and reimburses customers who bought steering wheel locks.