Ten of the world’s biggest automakers are being sued by consumers who claim they concealed the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning in more than 5 million vehicles equipped with keyless ignitions, leading to 13 deaths.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on August 26, alleges that toxic gas is emitted when drivers mistakenly leave their vehicles running, sometimes in garages attached to homes. The complaint claims it happens when drivers take their key fobs with them and think their engines will shut off, but they don’t.
The defendants include BMW, including Mini; Daimler’s Mercedes Benz; Fiat Chrysler; Ford ; General Motors; and Honda, including Acura; Hyundai, including affiliate Kia; Nissan, including Infiniti; Toyota, including Lexus; and Volkswagen, including Bentley.
A Scripps Washington Bureau investigation highlights two deaths that may be linked to the issue.
Ray Harrington’s death was a mystery to investigators when they found the professor of criminal justice dead in his North Carolina condo in March 2012. Officials initially determined the professor died from natural causes, but several days later, an autopsy report corrected them, pointing to carbon monoxide poisoning. According to the Scripps report, Harrington inadvertently left his car running in the garage, and deadly fumes seeped into his bedroom. Harrington’s son says his dad was under the impression the car would automatically shut off if the key fob was removed from the vehicle. “I remember asking him the question back then, ‘What if you walk out of the car and leave it running, will it eventually shut off?’ And I remember him saying, ‘Absolutely.’ “
In 2010, Chasity Glisson died in her Boca Raton, Florida, home from carbon monoxide poisoning, and the Scripps investigation says authorities traced the source to her keyless ignition car as well. NHTSA documents obtained by Scripps reveal the agency did not assign the case for deeper investigation until more than a year had passed and similar deaths had occurred.
Drivers who filed suit claim that the defendants have known for years of the risks of keyless ignitions, which have been available since at least 2003, yet marketed their vehicles as safe.
“Plaintiffs believed the automakers’ repeated promises that the affected vehicles were safe,” the complaint read. “In fact they are not.”
The plaintiffs said the automakers could have averted the 13 deaths, and many more injuries, by installing an inexpensive feature to automatically turn off unattended engines, and that GM and Ford even took steps to patent a shut-off feature.
They also said 27 complaints have been lodged with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2009 over keyless ignitions. The agency sought change back in 2011 but those proposed rules have not been implemented yet.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to require the automakers to install an automatic shut-off feature. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages, among other remedies.
The case is Draeger et al v. Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 15-06491.