In addition to suing for compensatory and punitive damages, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction mandating that the automakers install the automatic shutoff components in all current and future vehicles with keyless ignition systems.
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Wednesday has the potential to add much more turmoil for an auto industry that is already working through crises like the General Motors deadly ignition switch defect and the massive Takata airbag recall involving up to 50 million vehicles. Attorney Martis Alex of the New York firm Labaton Sucharow filed the class-action suit along with co-counsel, Los Angeles firm Hagens Berman, on behalf of millions of customers who have or have had keyless ignition systems in their vehicles. The suit blames ten automakers for concealing the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning due to no automatic shutoff mechanism for customers who fail to turn off the ignition when they leave the vehicle. The plaintiffs claim that 13 deaths have been attributed to the issue, which could affect up to five million vehicles altogether. In the complaint, Alex wrote “Millions of American drivers are driving cars that have a defect that can kill them.” The plaintiffs also allege that the defect negatively affects the vehicles’ resale values. Officially, the case is titled Draeger et al v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc et al.
At issue in the lawsuit is that some drivers do not realize they have left the vehicle running, especially in newer hybrid vehicles or vehicles with quiet-running engines. In the complaint, Alex also writes that many customers assume that the vehicles have an automatic shutoff feature, saying that this assumption could have “deadly” results. Alex believes that all keyless systems should have an automatic shutoff mechanism if the vehicle detects that the key fob device is not close to the vehicle. For its part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the nation’s top auto regulator, acknowledged that carbon monoxide poisoning due to the keyless systems was a “clear safety problem” in 2011 following several deaths related to the issue. Despite the concern, little has been done at the federal level to address the systems. Although the NHTSA declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, court documents state that 27 complaints have been filed to the NHTSA involving carbon monoxide poisoning related to keyless ignitions since 2009.
In addition to suing for compensatory and punitive damages, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction mandating that the automakers install the automatic shutoff components in all current and future vehicles with keyless ignition systems. Alex claims that the automakers have known about the carbon monoxide issue since at least 2003, but marketed the vehicles to customers as being safe anyway. Although GM has recalled older versions of its hybrid Volt to install software that forces the vehicle to turn off if the fob moves more than few feet from the vehicle, the company was still included among the automakers named in the lawsuit. Also named in the suit include: Ford, Toyota (and Lexus), Nissan (and Infiniti), Honda (and Acura), Hyundai (and Kia), BMW (and Mini), Fiat-Chrysler, Daimler Mercedes Benz, and Volkswagen (and Bentley). No automakers commented immediately after the lawsuit was filed, and plaintiffs’ lawyers also declined to comment following the filing as well. The Central District of California court is the same venue where Toyota defended lawsuits against claims involving vehicles that would accelerate unintentionally. That case led to a $1.6 billion settlement for consumers, which was approved by District Judge James Selna in 2013. It has yet to be determined if Selna will preside over this case as well.