Milwaukee sues Kia/Hyundai over rampant theft

Milwaukee is suing Kia/Hyundai over rampant theft of the vehicles.

Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer made the announcement Wednesday, March 22, a day after the Milwaukee Common Council approved a resolution by Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Alderman Khalif Rainey allowing the city to retain outside counsel "for the purpose of pursuing all potential remedies for damages suffered by the City of Milwaukee as a result of nuisance levels of automobile theft." 

Alders blame the manufacturers for making vehicles without anti-theft systems. As a result, city leaders say stolen cars are involved in crashes, and the city's reputation has suffered.

In the first three months of 2023, Milwaukee police say 373 Kias were stolen and 304 Hyundais were stolen. It has cost every Milwaukee taxpayer, regardless of whether their car has been stolen. 

"We are elated at this moment that we finally, finally got the word to move forward for a lawsuit," said Spencer.

He called Milwaukee "ground zero" when it comes to the theft of these vehicles.

"In my estimation, all the problems emanated in Milwaukee, the epicenter of the cause and problems that we’ve been experiencing," said Spencer.

Spencer said it's unclear how much money the city could get as a result of the lawsuit.

"As long as you live in the city of Milwaukee and pay taxes, you have standing," said Spencer. "You have damages from MPD having to respond, fire having to respond."  

Denese Hazley's Kia was stolen three times, and she said her insurance payment tripled.

"It seems like if (city leaders) are involved, there really – it really is a problem, and now, they see it’s a problem," said Hazley. "They're taking it more serious, I guess. Even if it's not money, just the people to be punished."

Amanda Mattefs' Hyundai has been stolen twice. The second time, it was totaled. She said she's not sure suing the manufacturers makes sense.

"I was more mad that there was something happening in the city that couldn’t be controlled," said Mattefs.

She said she wishes there were more resources for the city and victims of theft. She believes officials need to seek out the root cause.

"At the end of the day, people are going to figure you how to do that if they want to steal a vehicle," said Mattefs. "They need to take a deeper look at what was happening then and is happening now, and it still hasn’t changed. They’ve just been talking about change and nothing really has."

Spencer said the city hired a Seattle-based law firm for the suit. Alderwoman Coggs said she hopes the lawsuit brings change.

"It is my hope that not only do we curb the thefts but that the city of Milwaukee recovers some of the damages for police, fire, DPW and any other cost that we’ve had to incur as a result of the negligence of Kia and Hyundai," said Coggs.

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Wisconsin AG says companies' actions 'not enough'

The move came days after Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and 22 other attorneys general issued a letter to Kia and Hyundai demanding that the companies do more to protect drivers from theft. 

The letter urges the companies to "accelerate the implementation" of software upgrades aimed at preventing theft and provide free safety measures for owners whose cars cannot support the upgrade.

Kaul said there was a nearly 800% increase in Kia/Hyundai theft reports in Milwaukee in 2021, and though there was a slight decline in 2022, there were still six Kia/Hyundai thefts every day in Milwaukee as of the end of September 2022.

"This is not an accident," said Kaul. "It’s not just bad luck."

The letter from the 23 attorneys general states, "While your companies are reported to have taken some steps to address this crisis, it hasn't been enough, and it hasn't been done fast enough."

In February, the companies announced a new free, anti-theft software upgrade that will require drivers to have a key to start a car.

The letter from the attorneys general says that announcement "is long overdue and still not enough."

"Your companies made the choice not to include anti-theft immobilizers as standard equipment in many of your vehicle models sold in the United States during a period when every other manufacturer was doing so – and even though these vehicles come equipped with immobilizers when sold in Canada and Europe. These highly effective immobilizers were standard equipment on 62% of other manufacturers’ car models in 2000, and by 2015 they were standard on 96% of other manufacturers’ vehicles. And yet, in that same year, only 26% of Hyundai and Kia models came equipped with an immobilizer as standard equipment. You waited until November 2021 to make immobilizers standard equipment on all your vehicles," the letter states.

The letter demands that the companies "do everything in your power to accelerate the implementation of the software upgrade and to provide free alternative protective measures for all those owners whose cars cannot support the software upgrade."

It goes on to note that the software upgrade "will not be available for most of the affected models until June," and it cannot be installed on certain models from 2011-2022.

Kaul's statement notes that many of these thefts are connected to other crimes, further endangering the public. The letter notes a FOX6 report from 2021 in which a teen was killed in Milwaukee after stealing a Kia Sportage and fleeing police before crashing into another car.

"Many of our shooters are shooting from stolen vehicles, and many of our shooting victims are being shot from stolen vehicles," said Assistant Milwaukee Police Chief Paul Formolo.

The letter notes that theft victims risk being unable to insure their vehicles, as "major insurance companies are now refusing to insure the Hyundai/Kia models most susceptible to theft." In states where insurance is required, it means these model owners can no longer legally drive their cars.

The letter demands that the companies make anti-theft steering wheel devices available "so that every current owner can obtain one of these devices at no cost as soon as possible -- especially those owners whose cars are not compatible with the software upgrade you recently announced."

Kaul stopped short of suggesting a lawsuit.

Hyundai statement

"Hyundai is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products. All Hyundai vehicles meet the anti-theft requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114.  In response to increasing thefts targeting Hyundai vehicles without push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices in the U.S., Hyundai has introduced a free anti-theft software upgrade to prevent the vehicles from starting during a method of theft popularized on TikTok and other social media.

All Hyundai vehicles produced since November 2021 are equipped with an engine immobilizer as standard equipment. Hyundai is also providing free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies for distribution to local residents who own or lease affected models."

Kia statement

"We thank the Attorneys General for the opportunity to let them know what we have done and will continue to do to combat this rise in car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it. We are committed to working with these officials and with law enforcement agencies at the state and local level to ensure vehicle security.

To be clear, Kia began testing and developing a free software upgrade to restrict the unauthorized operation of vehicle ignition systems months ago. We have already directly contacted over 1.1 million owners and lessees of impacted Kia vehicles to let them know of the availability of the software upgrade and to advise them to schedule a free installation at any Kia dealer. We are scheduled to contact over 2 million such owners and lessees by the end of March. Dealers who have installed the free upgrade report successful installation takes under an hour to complete, and customer feedback has been positive. 

In addition to this upgrade, we have already provided more than 23,000 steering wheel locks to over 120 law enforcement agencies across the country for them to distribute - at no cost - to impacted owners. We will continue to make these locks available – at no cost - as they are needed. We have also distributed hundreds of free steering wheel locks directly to impacted customers. On top of that, we have also established a website where owners can use their VIN to review the status of their vehicle’s eligibility for the free software upgrade and can receive more information about directly obtaining a free steering wheel lock from Kia. We are also in contact with major insurance carriers so they are aware of the actions we have taken and we are actively working with them to ensure our customers have access to quality and comprehensive coverage.

Kia owners can contact our Customer Care team directly at 1-800-333-4542 (4Kia) or online at the dedicated website for more information on their eligibility for the free upgrade or to learn more about obtaining a free steering wheel lock."