Engine Fire Lawsuits

In mid-January 2019, Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp announced a recall of about 168,000 vehicles because of fire risks. The automakers conducted previous recalls of about 1.7 million vehicles back in 2015 and 2017 to address these issues, but the companies are now stating that some of those repairs weren’t completed properly, leaving thousands of vehicles still at risk of engine issues and potential fire hazards.

Hundreds of consumers have filed reports stating that their Kia and Hyundai vehicles have spontaneously caught on fire, sometimes while being driven and sometimes while simply sitting in a parking lot or garage. Some of those reports involved serious injuries and even deaths related to those fires.

The experienced accident attorneys at Chaffin Luhana are currently investigating cases in which consumers were injured or killed because of Kia and Hyundai engine fires.

Hyundai, Kia Recall 168,000 Vehicles with Fire Risks

In January 2019, Hyundai and Kia announced they were recalling 168,000 vehicles at risk for engine fires. This time, the companies stated the problem was a fuel pipe issue and stemmed from improper repairs during previous recalls for engine failures.

During previous repairs of the engine block problems, the automakers explained, some of the dealerships might have damaged the high-pressure fuel pipe, misaligning it or improperly tightening it. This could cause fuel leaks, which could, in turn, lead to engine fires.

This recall affects only 68,000 of the Kia vehicles previously recalled for engine problems, and only 100,000 of the Hyundai vehicles previously recalled for engine problems.  Affected vehicles included:

  • 2011-2014 Kia Optima
  • 2012-2014 Kia Sorento
  • 2011-2013 Kia Sportage
  • 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata
  • 2013-2014 Santa Fe Sport

In addition to the recall, the automakers announced a “product improvement campaign,” which they stated would involve software updates to a total of 3.7 million vehicles. The new software is supposed to alert drivers to possible engine failures. When problems are detected, the software causes the vehicles to go into a reduced-speed “limp” mode. This is intended to protect the engine from damage that could lead to stalling.

The companies stated they would notify consumers by a mailed letter and would fix the problem by replacing the fuel pipe with a new one if needed.

Safety advocates, including Jason Levine, executive director of the CAS, weren’t satisfied with this latest recall, stating it was too limited to address all of the complaints about engine fires.

Types of Accidents and Injuries Associated with Hyundai and Kia Engine Fires

Hyundai and Kia engine fires may cause the following types of injuries:

  • Severe burns
  • Disfigurement
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Death

Hyundai and Kia Owners Report Spontaneous Engine Fires

Back in September 2015, Hyundai recalled nearly 500,000 vehicles because of engine issues. Specifically, according to the company, manufacturing debris could restrict oil flow to an affected vehicle’s connecting rod bearings. Without proper lubrication, these parts could wear and fail faster than usual, potentially seizing or breaking.

This defect, in turn, could result in an engine stall, increasing the risk of a crash, and could also create a hole in a vehicle’s engine block. Such a hole could allow engine fluids to leak and ignite, creating conditions conducive to a sudden engine fire.

This first recall related to this issue included only Hyundai and Kia vehicles manufactured before April 2012. The repair involved replacing the engine block.

In 2016, Kim Gwang-ho, an automotive engineer who worked for over 25 years for the Hyundai Motor Group, reported the automaker to South Korean and American officials, stating that the company was covering up a defect in several of their models. Those defects included damaged vacuum lines and extensive ventilation resistance in fuel vapor canisters, both issues that could lead to engine damage and stalling. Kim told the NHTSA that the automakers weren’t doing enough to address the engine design problems.

The automaker denied the allegations and later fired Kim, but the NHTSA took notice, reviewing Kim’s documents related to the issue. Meanwhile, in March 2017, Kia and Hyundai issued two more recalls covering an additional 1.2 million vehicles that had the same engine problem. Hyundai included about 572,000 Sonata and Santa Fe Sport vehicles with Theta II engines, and Kia recalled 618,000 Optima, Sorento, and Sportage vehicles with the same engine.

The automakers warned then that during a malfunction, vehicle owners might notice a knocking sound from the engine that increased in frequency as speed increased, and might see warning lights on the dashboard.

This second recall included Kia models that were left out of the original recall. These vehicles were manufactured on a different production line, so apparently, the automaker assumed these vehicles wouldn’t have the same issues.  However, data later proved that they did. Vehicles affected by these first two recalls included:

  • 2013-2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
  • 2013-2014 Sonata
  • 2011-2014 Kia Optima
  • 2011-2013 Kia Sportage
  • 2012-2014 Kia Sorento

In May 2017, partially because of Kim’s evidence, the NHTSA opened a formal investigation into these recalls to see if the automakers had acted properly and in a timely manner to address the safety issues.

Center for Auto Safety Petitions NHTSA to Investigate Kia and Hyundai Fires

On June 11, 2018, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) petitioned the NHTSA to investigate fire-causing defects in 2011-2014 Kia Optima and Sorento, and Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe, vehicles. The CAS  noted that complaints submitted to the NHTSA and other sources revealed “a frighteningly large number of these vehicles manufactured at the same time catching on fire.”

At that point, over 350 drivers had reported engine fires related to these vehicles, with 120 owners reporting fires that occurred spontaneously, with no preceding accident or collision. An additional 229 complaints related to melted wires in a vehicle ’s engine bay, and smoke and burning odors indicating potential fires.

The CAS stated: “The vast majority of complaints which discuss the origins of the vehicle fires state that smoke and/or flames are first seen emanating from the engine bay, then the car is quickly engulfed.”

Though any vehicle may be at risk of catching fire in an accident, the CAS pointed out that Hyundai and Kia vehicles were statistically more likely to do so, revealing a “systemic issue” that needed to be repaired. They included in their petition a few examples of complaints from consumers.

In one of those complaints, the owner of a 2011 Kia Santa Fe stated that after the vehicle was driven about 10 miles, it was parked inside an attached garage and the ignition shut off. About an hour later the vehicle was on fire and caused significant damage to the garage and home.

In a second complaint, the owner of a 2012 Hyundai Sonata reported having been shopping for about an hour and coming out to find the vehicle in flames in the parking lot.

In a third, the owner of a 2013 Kia Sorento took the vehicle to the dealer after smelling tar, but the dealer couldn’t diagnose the problem. Later the failure recurred and the headlights burned out. The dealer replaced the headlights, but the failure recurred a third time, burning the driver seat and jamming the driver front door. The fire was extinguished and no injuries were reported.

All complaints indicated issues with faulty electrical components and/or faulty housing for those electrical components, as well as reports of leaking engine fluids. On July 24, 2018, the CAS filed an addendum to their original petition, requesting NHTSA expand the investigation to include 2010-2015 Kia Soul vehicles as well.

CAS Calls for Recall of Hyundai and Kia Vehicles

When the CAS originally petitioned the NHTSA to look into the engine fires, the NHTSA was still investigating previous recalls. In a letter to Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) dated June 16, 2018, the NHTSA noted they were currently investigating certain Kia and Hyundai vehicles for engine failure issues, many reported as having resulted in non-collision fires. “As part of these investigations, the agency is reviewing all non-collision fires related to engine failures,” wrote Heidi R. King, NHTSA Deputy Administrator.

King went on to note, however, that the investigation did not include model years 2011-2014 Kia Optima and Sorento and Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe vehicles, which the CAS asked to be included. She left open the possibility that these vehicles would be included at a later date if needed “based upon the data.”

Between June 12, 2018, and October 12, 2018, there were an additional 103 reports of engine fires—an 85 percent increase. Despite the dangers, the automakers were not taking meaningful action and were only issuing statements indicating they were working with the NHTSA to determine “if” there was a manufacturing issue.

In October 2018, in response to the rising number of reports of Kia and Hyundai fires, the CAS called on the automakers to recall 2.9 million 2011-2014 Kia Sorento, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Hyundai Santa Fe, and 2010-2015 Kia Soul vehicles.

Of additional concern was the fact that in at least 12 of the reported fire incidences, the customers had taken the vehicle in for a previous recall repair, only to have the same vehicle catch fire at a later date. This suggested the recall repairs might not have been sufficient to prevent fire danger.

Meanwhile, consumers continued to be put at risk. In 2017, a 48-year-old Ohio man burned to death in a 2014 Kia Soul. It was his mother’s vehicle, and he had gotten in the car outside of her apartment complex. She heard him screaming for help and raced toward the burning car, but couldn’t get close enough to save him.

A Nashville City Councilman also reported driving on the highway when his Kia spontaneously caught fire. He pulled over and ran out of the car just before the vehicle was engulfed in flames.

U.S. Government Investigates Hyundai and Kia Handling of Engine Defects

In November 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, as part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), launched a criminal investigation into Hyundai and Kia’s handling of the engine-defect problem. They reported they were working with the NHTSA on the investigation, to determine if the automakers implemented their recalls in a timely and efficient manner. Should criminal charges be filed, the companies could end up paying hefty fines.

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee had also scheduled a hearing on the engine fires for November 14, 2018, but the hearing was put on hold. The Committee had invited the U.S. chief executives from the automakers to come to discuss the engine problems and fire complaints. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the committee, stated that he wanted to get to the bottom of what was causing the fires and determine if the affected vehicles were safe.

Despite the fact that the hearing didn’t happen, the Committee stated that discussions with the automakers were ongoing.

Hyundai and Kia Engine Fire Lawsuits

Some plaintiffs have already filed lawsuits against these automakers because of engine fires. One of those, filed on December 14, 2018, is a class action lawsuit filed by eight representative plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. They claim that several of the engines in Hyundai and Kia vehicles contain an engine defect that “presents consumers with an unacceptable risk of their vehicles spontaneously bursting into flames.”

They add that the companies were aware of the defects and of the risks they presented to the public, but failed to reveal the problem posed a safety hazard and failed to address it properly, causing consumers to not only suffer injuries, but losses in money and/or property.

Had the plaintiffs been aware of this defect before purchasing the vehicles, they stated in their complaint, they never would have purchased them or would have expected to pay substantially less for them. Instead, they and other consumers have had to take time off work, pay for car rentals and towing charges (and sometimes repair costs as well) to get the vehicles repaired, and try to figure out what to do with vehicles that have a lower market value and are worth less than they should be.

One of the representative plaintiffs, a resident of Illinois, purchased her 2015 Hyundai Santa FE in January 2016. In July 2017, while her boyfriend was driving it on the highway, the vehicle erupted in flames. The boyfriend pulled it over to the side of the road and escaped without injury. A passerby assisted with extinguishing the fire.

The plaintiffs seek recovery of damages and/or a repair under state consumer protection statutes, and reimbursement of all expenses associated with repairs or replacement of the vehicles.

Experienced Engine Fire Lawyers

If you or a loved one was injured or killed, or other losses, related to a Kia or Hyundai engine defect, call us today for a free consultation. Chaffin Luhana is now investigating these cases and will not charge you unless we recover damages for you. Call today at 1-888-480-1123.