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'It has to stop now': Cleveland sues Hyundai, Kia after surge in car thefts, drains public resources

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Posted at 9:44 AM, Mar 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-14 13:09:53-04

CLEVELAND — Standing in front of a trio of stolen Kias and Hyundais that were reportedly used to commit crime, Cleveland city leaders including Mayor Justin Bibb announced the city has filed a federal lawsuit against the two automakers, citing their failure to install industry-standard anti-theft devices, which has left the vehicles especially prone to theft. In addition to asking the court to force Kia and Hyundai to permanently fix affected vehicles, Mayor Bib and Law Director Mark Griffin said the lawsuit seeks damages related to the overtime paid to patrol officers and other staff members at the police impound lot.

Filed late Tuesday afternoon, Cleveland’s federal lawsuit marks at least the fourth lawsuit filed by a municipality against Hyundai and Kia in connection with the nationwide surge in stolen vehicles. Seattle and Columbus have also recently filed lawsuits. Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback L.L.P. is serving as the city’s attorney in the matter, which is expected to be consolidated in federal court with other related lawsuits.

“We want to show the residents of our city that we want to stand with them as consumers to make sure we hold these car companies accountable,” Bibb said. “The lawsuit shows that Kia and Hyundai have been prioritizing profits over people and profits over safety. We as a city need to do everything we can to fight for these residents and get the resources that they deserve.”

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In its lawsuit, the City of Cleveland alleges both Kia and Hyundai prioritized profits over the safety and well-being of customers by not installing anti-theft devices known as passive immobilizers in the vast majority of their vehicles. When installed, the immobilizers prevent a car from being started unless the ignition system is matched with a unique key. This matching is typically orchestrated by corresponding computer chips in both the key and the ignition.

View our coverage of this resolution below:

Council urges Bibb administration to sue Kia, Hyundai as car thefts keep surging

RELATED: Council urges Bibb administration to sue Kia, Hyundai as car thefts keep surging

Developed in the 1990s, the technology has long been industry standard for the vast majority of other auto companies but are not required by federal law. However, in the lawsuit, city officials assert that both Kia and Hyundai have installed immobilizers in their vehicles for the Canadian and European markets, where they are required by law.

As few as 26% of Hyundai and Kia 2015 model-year vehicles had passive immobilizers as standard equipment, compared to 96% of all other manufacturers.

“When it comes to working-class people, [Kia and Hyundai] put profits over people. They went cheap, even though they knew this was a risk,” said Law Director Mark Griffin. “It has to stop. It has to stop now. That’s why we have filed this lawsuit. We have asked the court to provide monetary and injunctive relief to stop the nuisance and to mandate that Kia and Hyundai to fix the problems that are plaguing our citizens and our city government.”

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Although other cities across the country began to experience surge in stolen Kias and Hyundais as early as 2021, Cleveland’s theft wave began in the late summer and early fall of 2022. Between October and December last year, the Cleveland Division of Police reported more than 1,200 Kias and Hyundais were stolen. In the month of December alone, Kias and Hyundais accounted for approximately 65% of all stolen motor vehicles in the city.

Many of the stolen vehicles were later linked to serious, violent felonies, including robberies and shootings. Vehicles that were stolen and later left abandoned were inevitably towed to the police impound lot, which, at times, resembled a busy mall during the holiday shopping season.

As News 5 first reported, as quickly as stolen Kias and Hyundais were claimed by their rightful owners, a newly-recovered stolen vehicle was dropped off.

“Our impound lot became the largest Kia dealer in the state of Ohio. That is not something that we can sustain because every single one of those costs residents money,” Griffin said. “We are going to seek compensation for that and it costs time and attention away from the smart, targeted, precise approach to violent crime. We’ve estimated already that we have spent thousands of police hours simply tracking these stolen Kias and stolen Hyundais, and that is a real drain on police resources that we want to use to fight violent crime.”

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On Monday, the Cleveland City Council unanimously approved a non-binding resolution urging Mayor Bibb and the city to file suit. The resolution, which was authored by Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh, was fast-tracked through the City Council.

“These are not luxury vehicles behind us. These are vehicles that working-class people need to go to work; oftentimes, it’s the hourly jobs that don’t pay for the day if you go out in the morning and your car isn’t there,” Harsh said. “These are vehicles that people need to take their kids to doctor's appointments or sometimes hit the grocery store at 10 p.m. at night.”

Although he declined to go into specifics, Cleveland Police District Chief Harold Pretel said the police department has devoted a myriad of resources and personnel to specifically target certain parts of the city where the thefts are especially concentrated. Additionally, Pretel suggested that so-called bait cars are an option.

In a statement, a Kia spokesperson said the city’s lawsuit is “without merit” and the automaker has been and continues to work with local officials and law enforcement agencies to combat car theft. The company’s statement also highlighted the role of social media, including TikTok, has played in the surge of thefts.

To read the entire lawsuit, click here.