Mayor Justin Bibb announces that Cleveland is suing automakers Kia and Hyundai over a surge in car thefts.
Mayor Justin Bibb announces that Cleveland is suing automakers Kia and Hyundai over a surge in car thefts. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Cleveland is suing automakers Kia and Hyundai over a wave of car thefts that officials say has strained police resources and endangered public safety.

Attorneys for the city filed the lawsuit in federal court in the Central District of California on Tuesday. Cleveland is the latest municipality to say that the automakers should bear the costs of what amounts to a public nuisance. Columbus and Seattle have also gone to court against the companies.

In a news conference Wednesday morning, city officials accused the companies of trying to save money by skimping on anti-hotwiring devices known as immobilizers. That left lower-end car models without the technology particularly susceptible to theft, they said. 

“Kia and Hyundai have been prioritizing profits over people and profits over safety, and that behavior is unacceptable,” Mayor Justin Bibb said. 

Thefts of Kias and Hyundais surged in the second half of last year, according to figures included in Cleveland’s complaint. More than 1,200 of the cars were stolen between October and December last year, the suit says. In December, Kias and Hyundais made up 65% of all cars stolen in the city.

The city’s complaint ticks off examples of car thefts in Northeast Ohio that ended in crashes. Law Director Mark Griffin said Cleveland would be seeking damages to recoup the costs of police overtime and of operating the city’s impound lot. The city estimates that police have spent thousands of hours tracking down stolen cars, diverting time from fighting violent crime, he said. 

The Seattle-based law firm Keller Rohrback is representing the city. Griffin said he expects Cleveland’s case to be consolidated in federal court in California with other lawsuits against the automakers brought by cities and consumers. 

In a statement, Kia called the cities’ lawsuits “without merit,” saying the company’s cars comply with federal safety standards, including for ignition security. The company is offering security software upgrades to customers and steering wheel locks to local police departments, the statement said. 

“Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with local officials in Cleveland and law enforcement agencies across the city to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it,” the statement reads.

Hyundai similarly said its cars met anti-theft standards and that it was making software patches and wheel locks available. Cars produced after November 2021 are equipped with an immobilizer, the company said.

“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,” the company’s statement reads.

A Kia executive defended the company’s cars in a letter last year to the city of St. Louis, which had threatened a lawsuit over the thefts. The letter, which the city of Columbus included as an exhibit to its lawsuit, blames the thieves, not the cars. 

“What has emerged in St. Louis and some other locales is a new kind of automotive thief who is willing to drive around in a vehicle even though it has outward signs of being stolen,” the letter reads. “This is a significant contrast from the traditional thief, who focused on vehicles that could be stolen without any obvious signs of theft while driving.” 

To that, Griffin said that the companies should have foreseen the cars’ vulnerability.

“They went cheap, even though they knew that this was a risk,” he said. 

Ward 13 Council Member Kris Harsh, who sponsored legislation this week urging the administration to sue the automakers, joined Wednesday’s news conference. City and police officials spoke to media in a garage at the city’s impound lot in front of a row of Kias and Hyundais. 

“These are not luxury vehicles behind us,” Harsh said. “These are vehicles that working-class people need to go to work.”

This story will be updated.

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.