Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison on Monday filed a lawsuit against Kia and Hyundai, alleging that the automakers failed to install standard anti-theft technology in many of their vehicles, resulting in a spike in car thefts and harming public safety.
The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle asserts that between 2011 and 2021, the two companies opted to forgo installation of an engine immobilizer that prevents cars from starting without their keys, while 96% of car manufacturers overall included the theft prevention device.
“Kia and Hyundai chose to cut corners and cut costs at the expense of their customers and the public. As a result, our police force has had to tackle a huge rise in vehicle theft and related problems with already stretched resources,” Davison said in a statement.
The lawsuit alleges that the stolen vehicles can be used for joyriding, committing additional crimes and crashed, potentially harming property and people. It cites thefts of the vehicles and related crimes from around the nation.
A spokesman for Hyundai rejected the case as “improper and unnecessary.”
“Hyundai has taken a series of actions to deter thefts of affected vehicles, including an upcoming software update scheduled to be available beginning next month and provided at no cost to customers,” said Ira Gabriel, a senior manager in Hyundai Motor America’s corporate and marketing PR, by email.
Since November 2021, the engine immobilizers are now standard on all vehicles, Gabriel said.
Kia has not responded to a request for comment. GeekWire will update this story if a response is provided.
Defendants’ conduct has endangered the comfort and public safety of the entire Seattle community and therefore constitutes a public nuisance.
The lawsuit contains multiple similarities to the high profile case filed earlier this month by Seattle Public Schools against most of the world’s largest social media companies. That suit claims media giants including TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Snap, Instagram and their parent companies have knowingly harmed children, creating a costly mental health crisis in schools.
The plaintiffs in both cases include representation by the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback, and both allege the defendants have violated Washington state’s public nuisance law.
“Defendants’ conduct has endangered the comfort and public safety of the entire Seattle community and therefore constitutes a public nuisance,” said the suit filed this week.
Social media is the focus of the case filed by the school district, and also plays a role in the auto theft suit.
In late 2020, teenage boys began posting videos on social media describing how to steal the cars simply by removing a plastic piece under the steering wheel and using a USB cord. Posts with the hashtag “Kia Boys” racked up more than 33 million views on TikTok by September 2022, according to CNBC. The videos included teens engaged in reckless driving of the stolen vehicles.
Crime data from Seattle and elsewhere in the U.S. made clear that people were making use of the tutorials:
In Seattle in 2021, thieves stole 158 Hyundai and Kia vehicles. That increased to approximately 825 of the vehicles last year, according to the lawsuit.
While vehicle thefts in Seattle increased 30% from 2021 to last year, rates of theft surged 363% for Hyundai vehicles and 503% for Kia vehicles over that time, plaintiffs said.
The lawsuit also cites data indicating that most of the vehicles were recovered within the city limits, as opposed to being taken to chop shops, suggesting “the vehicles were stolen for joyriding or to be used as transportation for vehicle theft and/or other crimes.”
In announcing the lawsuit, the city referenced an arrest three weeks ago involving a group of teens who allegedly used two of these stolen vehicles to rob a man in Seattle and then flee to the neighboring city of Federal Way. The city didn’t specify whether they were Kia or Hyundai vehicles. The Seattle Police blotter includes additional descriptions of similar thefts.
While Hyundai is working on a software update to help address the situation, the company is currently providing “free steering wheel locks, as available, to select law enforcement agencies across the country,” said Gabriel. Seattle is one of those areas, he said. Law enforcement is responsible for distributing the devices to local residents.
“Owners may also bring their vehicles to a local Hyundai dealer for the purchase and installation of a customized security kit,” Gabriel said. “We apologize for the inconvenience to affected customers.”
The lawsuit said there are reports of thieves stealing the vehicles despite the wheel locks. It criticized the company for charging for the security kits, saying Hyundai “chose to make money off of a crime wave it caused.”
The city is calling on Kia and Hyundai to take multiple steps to resolve the issue, including:
taking action to stop the thefts;
providing funding for auto theft prevention;
and providing funding to cover damages caused by the absence of the engine immobilization devices.
“To protect the hard-earned property of Seattle residents, car makers need to take this problem seriously and do all they can to prevent these thefts,” said Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, in a release announcing the suit.