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St. Louis sues Kia, Hyundai over lack of anti-theft devices

Mayor Tishaura Jones, center, flanked by St. Louis Chief of Police Robert Tracy, left, and City Counselor Sheena Hamilton, right, announce the city is suing Hyundai and Kia over faulty technology allows the vehicles to be more easily stolen on Monday, March 27, 2023, at City Hall.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones, center, flanked by St. Louis Chief of Police Robert Tracy and City Counselor Sheena Hamilton, announced Monday that the city is suing Hyundai and Kia over their lack of technology to prevent vehicles from being stolen.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. March 27 with additional information from the city, statement from Hyundai

The City of St. Louis has sued two South Korean auto companies for failing to install engine immobilizers on their vehicles, creating what Mayor Tishaura Jones calls a “public safety crisis” in the city.

“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 across the country and put a target on the backs of their customers,” Jones said Monday at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. The city sent a letter to the companies last August threatening a suit unless they took action.

Many older Kia and Hyundai models lack a device that prevents the engine from starting unless the right key is present. Since May 2022, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has received more than 4,500 reports of stolen Kias or Hyundais, 61% of the vehicles reported stolen in the city.

The cars aren’t simply being taken for joyrides, said St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy.

“They’re being used for other crimes. They’re being used for violent crimes,” he said.

The lawsuit cites several examples, including shootouts in June and August 2022 and a September 2022 hit-and-run accident in which a cyclist was killed on South Grand Boulevard.

Jones, Tracy, Interim Public Safety Director Charles Coyle, and City Counselor Sheena Hamilton, were all present for the announcement. None took any questions from reporters. A spokesman for the mayor said the lack of questions was due to the fact that the lawsuit was considered pending litigation.

The federal lawsuitasks a judge to force the companies to install engine immobilizers on vehicles where they do not come standard. The city is also seeking “in excess of $75,000, attorneys’ fees, punitive damages” and whatever other relief the court decides is appropriate. That $75,000 amount is the threshold under federal law to file a civil action in federal court.

St. Louis joins Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee, San Diego and Seattle in filing suit. In a statement, Kia North America called all of the lawsuits filed “without merit,” and highlighted efforts to distribute steering wheel locks and software upgrades to Kia owners.

“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 statement said.

Hyundai did not comment on the lawsuit, but also touted its own rollout of a software upgrade. The upgrade is currently available for 2017-2020 Elantras, 2015-2019 Sonatas, and 2020-2021 Venues, and will be available for more models beginning in June.

St. Louis law firm Dowd Bennett is working with the city counselor’s office on the suit. The mayor’s office said it was one of several firms approved in 2022 to provide outside legal counsel for the city. The two-year contract is worth $50,000, and the costs will be covered initially by the city’s professional services fund.

The city hopes to recoup the cost of the contract through the lawsuit.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.