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Rochester to sue Hyundai, Kia over rash of car thefts

City Councilmember Malik Evans is looking to unseat Mayor Lovely Warren in 2021.City Councilmember Malik Evans is looking to unseat Mayor Lovely Warren in 2021.
Jacob Walsh
Mayor Malik Evans.

The city of Rochester will join a host of municipalities around the country in suing automakers Hyundai and Kia for damages related to the rash of thefts involving their vehicles, Mayor Malik Evans announced Monday.

Specifically, the lawsuit will accuse the companies of failing to install industry-standard anti-theft technology that has resulted in an exponential increase in stolen cars in the city and police expenses related to responding to those incidents.

“This problem is out of control,” Evans said during a news conference at City Hall. “And these costs should not be borne by the city, our residents or our businesses.”

Linda Kingsley, the city’s lawyer, who joined Evans in the announcement, said she expected the complaint to be filed later this week in federal court in California, where Hyundai’s and Kia’s American operations are headquartered.

Several other cities have filed similar lawsuits, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Diego, St. Louis and Seattle.

Kingsley explained that the lawsuit was not a class action, but that a Seattle-based law firm was handling most of the litigation on behalf of the municipalities and that the amount of damages sought would be calculated as the crisis continues to unfold.

“Our complaint seeks monetary and injunctive relief to stop the nuisance and mandate that Kia and Hyundai fix the problem they created,” Kingsley said. “Some of the monetary relief we are seeking is for costs related to law enforcement time and effort, the cost of emergency services and other harms to our community.”

Rochester police have reported a 2,400% increase in thefts of Kias and Hyundais this year, a figure bolstered in part by a popular TikTok social media challenge that showed viewers how to hotwire newer and lesser expensive models with a USB cable and a screwdriver.

This year to date, there have been 1,063 vehicles stolen in the city, compared with 387 during the same time period last year, according to police. Of the thefts this year, 403 have been Kias and 386 have been Hyundais. Last year, just 18 were Kias and 14 were Hyundais.

The cars have also been an accessory in a string of “smash-and-grab” burglaries, in which vehicles are driven through the door or storefront of a business, according to police. In 20 smash-and-grab jobs involving vehicles, 19 of them were either a Kia or a Hyundai, according to police

“We get multiple calls for reckless driving involving these vehicles,” said Police Chief David Smith. “Only last week, my aide and myself are out and around and had an encounter with one of these stolen vehicles ourselves.”

Smith elaborated that, in that instance, the driver and a passenger pulled the car over and ran. The suspects were not apprehended.

Last week, a student captured cell phone footage of a stolen Kia being driven recklessly over sidewalks and the lawn on the campus at Franklin High School as students fled for safety.

Kia issued a statement in response to the impending lawsuit, calling it and similar litigation "without merit." The statement went on to say that the company has reached out to 2 million owners and lessees of Kia vehicles to let them know that they are eligible for a software upgrade to restrict unauthorized operation of their vehicle's ignition system.

"Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in the greater Rochester area to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it," the statement read in part.

Hyundai issued a statementsaying that its vehicles in question comply with federal anti-theft requirements, and that the company is actively assisting theft victims by, among other things, offering insurance and software upgrades.

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.
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