Rochester is suing Kia America Inc. and Hyundai Motor America Inc. in an effort to take the automakers to task over their failure to install devices that could have prevented an epidemic of thefts of both companies’ vehicles.
Rochester Mayor Malik Evans today announced plans for the city to file a lawsuit targeting both companies. The city has hired the Seattle-based Keller Rohrback law firm as outside counsel to press the claim.
Vehicles manufactured by both companies before 2021 that have traditional key-operated ignition as opposed to fob-operated keyless entry systems can be easily started by means of a USB cable. That vulnerability sparked a TikTok challenge that has spurred a rash of thefts by teens in Rochester and across the country.
In the early days of the TikTok challenge, Kia and Hyundai charged owners of vulnerable vehicles to retrofit the cars with anti-theft devices. Later, the companies handed out steering wheel clubs. In February, both companies started offering free software updates that prevent USB starts. Such efforts, says Evans, came too late.
The mayor notes that other car manufacturers forestalled such problems by factory installing immobilizers. But Kia and Hyundai, to save money, “knowingly made, marketed and distributed these cars with serious security flaws and … failed to move quickly to solve the problem.”
In the first three months of this year, Rochester has seen a nearly 2400 percent rise in Kia and Hyundai thefts, going from 32 in the first quarter of 2022 to 752 in the same period this year. In many cases, thieves take the stolen vehicles for joyrides, abandoning them and often leaving them damaged. Break-ins and property thefts from Kias and Huyandais in the city have also skyrocketed, going from 97 in the first quarter of 2022 to 326 in the first three months of 2023.
The 752 thefts of Kias and Huyandais this year compares to 274 thefts of all other makes combined. The more than 1,000 vehicles of all makes stolen in the city so far this year compares to a total of 387 of all makes last year, including 18 Kias and 14 Hyundais. Of 20 smash-and-grab burglaries using cars committed in the city this year, 19 involved stolen Kias or Hyundais, says David Smith, Rochester chief of police.
Smith says Rochester police have made some 60 arrests of Kia and Hyundai thieves including the arrest of a single youth charged with eight such thefts in the county including five in the city. Roughly half of the city car-theft arrests have been of teens.
Evans says he finds himself “especially frustrated because these cars are affordable and they are popular among people who can least afford to lose time from work because their means of transportation has disappeared for a dangerous joyride.”
Meanwhile, says Evans, the problem remains “out of control and its costs should not be borne by the city, our residents or our businesses and all the individuals who bought Kias and Hyundais and probably thought they would have 21st century anti-theft technology.”
To be filed in the federal Central District of California, where the Korean auto makers—Hyundai has a controlling stake in Kia, but they operate separately—have their U.S. headquarters, the court action is expected to be filed within the week.
The Rochester suit parallels similar complaints being filed by eight other cities. Other municipal plaintiffs in the initial group are Buffalo, San Diego, Seattle, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. Keller Rohrback is handling all of the cases, which are to be coordinated in a multijurisdictional effort.
Rochester corporation counsel Linda Kingsley predicts that other U.S. cities will follow suit.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].