Class action lawsuit targets automakers for keyless ignition dangers

‘There is nothing to protect people'

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ten of the world’s largest automakers are facing a consumer class action lawsuit filed early Wednesday morning in California on behalf of millions of Americans who own or lease vehicles equipped with keyless ignitions.

“We’re filing this litigation because we feel like we need to do so to protect millions of Americans who are driving vehicles that have a safety defect that can kill them,” said Martis Alex, a New York attorney with the law firm Labaton Sucharow, who is leading the class action lawsuit.

Keyless ignitions have become widely available in recent years. The technology allows drivers to start their engines with an electronic key fob and the push of a button instead of using a traditional physical key. 

At issue, the driver can take the fob far away from the vehicle, such as to the bedroom, while inadvertently leaving the car running and emitting carbon monoxide for an indefinite period of time without the key fob present. This can become especially dangerous – even deadly – when the car remains running in garages attached to a home. The suit says 13 carbon monoxide deaths have been linked to the cars.

It seeks an injunction ordering Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Kia to install what it claims is an inexpensive automatic shut-down feature on all affected vehicles. The suit further alleges some automakers have begun installing the “auto-off” feature on newer model vehicles, while leaving older keyless ignition models without an automatic shut-down capability. 

Keyless ignition: "We shouldn't die from an error" from Scripps Washington Bureau on Vimeo.

“The fixes are very simple because they’re simply a reflash of software,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies and a consultant on the suit. 

Kane has for years advocated for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enact reforms on keyless ignition vehicles. In December 2011 the agency declared a “clear safety problem” and proposed reform, but the rulemaking process has languished since that time.

NHTSA initially said it would make a final rule addressing the safety issue in keyless ignition vehicles by February 2015 but later postponed that date to November. NHTSA tells Scripps News it now needs until next February to issue a final rule as it takes its time to make the best decision.

Lawsuit targets keyless ignition cars from Scripps Washington Bureau on Vimeo.

“It is so glaringly necessary for us to come in with a lawsuit at this time,” Alex said.  “There is nothing to protect people who are driving these defective vehicles from potential fatal consequences. We have to step in. NHTSA has not.”

Nine out of the 10 defendants either did not respond to Scripps or said they could not comment due to the litigation. 

Ford has voluntarily installed auto shutoff devices on some of its newer models but has said it has no plans for retrofitting other models. It said in a statement it takes the safety of its customers very seriously, adding that Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignition have an audible alert that warns drivers who might leave the driver’s side door with the key fob while the engine is running.

Alex filed the lawsuit along with a co-counsel at the California law firm Hagens Berman.

If you have a story about keyless ignition to share, email mark.greenblatt@scripps.com. Angela M. Hill (@AngelaMHill), Scripps National Investigative Producer, contributed to this report. Katherine Mirani, national investigations intern, also contributed.

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