Lawsuits Question Safety of Keyless Ignitions

A class action lawsuit, which includes four plaintiffs from Connecticut, blames several automakers for the potential dangers of keyless ignition systems.

Traditionally, when drivers leave their car with keys in hand, the engine is off. However, keyless ignition vehicles generally keep running, even when the driver walks away with the key.

New York City resident Mary Rivera blames the keyless ignition in her 2008 Lexus sedan for her brain damage and the death of her boyfriend, Ernie Codelia.

In 2009, Rivera and Codelia came home from dinner, parked their car in the garage and went to bed. Twelve hours later, Rivera’s brother found Codelia lying dead in their bed and Rivera sprawled on the floor, clinging to life.

While they slept, their car had been running overnight, sending odorless, colorless toxic fumes into their home. Codelia died of Carbon monoxide poisoning.

Rivera said she thought she turned off her keyless ignition with “that push button.”

That apparently wasn’t the case. Though she survived, the former Fordham University professor has changed drastically since her boyfriend’s death. She used to be active and played sports. These days, she needs a walker to get around and a chairlift to go up and down the stairs of her house.

“I’m depressed because I can’t do the things that I could do before,” said Rivera. “I could swim and play tennis.”

Rivera’s lawyer, Noah Kushlefsky, blames the keyless ignition.

“It’s an inexcusable design flaw to have a vehicle where you can remove the key FOB,” said Kushlefsky, “Leave your car with that device and your car is left running and it will run for an indeterminate amount of time.”

Kushlefsky sued Toyota, the maker of Lexus, on Rivera’s behalf. They settled that case last year. He also started a class action lawsuit against Toyota.

Toyota declined to comment, but the company has previously denied allegations that its keyless ignition system is defective and violates federal safety standards.

Another attorney, Martis Alex, recently filed a class action against 10 automakers of keyless ignition vehicle, accusing them of false advertising and deceptive practices.

Her lawsuit demands car makers install an "auto off" feature that would kill the engine if the car idles for an extended period of time.

“If they can put auto-off on your interior lights to save you an inconvenience, why can’t we put auto-off on the engine to save your life?” Alex said.

The trend of quiet engines also contributes to the problem, according to experts.

"They have made it very easy for you to inadvertently leave the car running and not know it,” Sean Kane, a car safety researcher and advocate said.

The Troubleshooters have learned that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considered keyless ignitions a problem five years ago. In 2011, the federal agency published a notice of proposed rule making where transportation officials acknowledged that "keyless ignition" increased the chances of "carbon monoxide poisoning in an enclosed area."

But still, years later, those proposals aren't even close to becoming the law. The NHTSA says it is gathering data that could lead to new rules, but the agency offers no timetable.

“What’s taking so long?” asked Kushlefsky. “It’s going to happen but people are dying while we are waiting.”

According to Kushlefsky, there have been 13 deaths nationwide since Codelia's, and there have been countless other non-fatal incidents that are under-reported.

Some say car makers are not to blame, and that if you are responsible enough to drive, you should be responsible enough to turn off your car.

“The driver absolutely has a responsibility,” said Kane. “But when you look at a design and you see people continuing to make an error, you have a problem with the design. It’s not so much with the human. Anecdotally, virtually every owner of a keyless ignition car that we’ve had any contact with has indicated they’ve left their car running one place or another.”

NBC Connecticut reached out to every automaker mentioned in the lawsuit.

Volkswagen, Nissan, Honda, BMW and Toyota have no comment on the pending litigation.

Mercedes-Benz responded with a statement:

"Our vehicles contain the latest in safety features. In fact, unlike many of the other keyless start systems on the market, ours can be operated as a normal keyed ignition system simply by removing the Stop/Start button or using the standard ignition switch (depending on the model). So customers can essentially choose how they wish to operate the system," the statement read.

Ford Motor Company also responded:

Ford takes the safety of our customers very seriously; the keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovative feature that has been well-received by customers. Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignition alert drivers when the driver’s door is opened and the vehicle’s engine is running.

Regardless of any legal changes, experts advise consumers buy a carbon monoxide detector. One can be purchased for less than $20.

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