Hyundai agrees to repair air bags that deactivate for adult passengers

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Case in Point

September 3, 2013

Hyundai agrees to repair air bags that deactivate for adult passengers 

The plaintiffs alleged violations of California’s consumer protection statutes, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, and revocation of acceptance. Kearney v. Hyundai Motor Am.

Hyundai Motor America manufactures the Sonata and Azera passenger cars and the Santa Fe SUV, among other vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that all passenger air bags activate during tests using a dummy the size of a fifth-percentile female adult. Hyundai touts its dual air bag protection system for front seat occupants. The passenger air bag is programmed to not activate if a child is in the seat, and Hyundai claims its system automatically determines whether to activate based on the passenger’s height and weight.

For model years 2006 to 2009, however, the passenger air bag would frequently deactivate even when the passenger was an adult female who weighed up to 140 pounds or was more than 5 feet 6 inches tall. Melissa Merriman, for instance, was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 117 pounds when she was a passenger in her mother’s Santa Fe. Merriman’s air bag was deactivated. When they were struck head on by a drunk driver, Merriman’s head went through the windshield, causing significant facial injuries.

Many customers complained, and dealers told them there was nothing they could do. In 2008, Hyundai sent its dealers a technical service bulletin telling them that if a customer complained about a Sonata’s air bag, they should remove the seat and send it to a repair facility for reprogramming. The automaker later sent a recall notice to all Sonata owners. But customers who had their Sonatas reprogrammed continued to experience the air bag deactivation. Hyundai did not recall any of its other vehicles.

Merriman’s parents and a couple who owned a Sonata filed a class action against Hyundai, alleging violations of California’s consumer protection statutes, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, and revocation of acceptance.

Hyundai agreed to notify Sonata owners whose vehicles had not yet been recalibrated that they should bring them to a dealer. The automaker will also send a recall notice to Santa Fe owners for recalibration and mail all Hyundai owners a pamphlet about the purpose of the air bag system and the correct seating position. Hyundai will talk to Sonata, Santa Fe, and Azera owners who are not satisfied with the recalibration to try to resolve their concerns. If customers are still unhappy and have shown they have an adult passenger weighing at least 108 pounds who did not activate the air bag, Hyundai will offer them a refund of the vehicle’s purchase price or an exchange for another model.

The court has granted final approval.

Citation: Kearney v. Hyundai Motor Am., No. 8:09-cv-01298 (C.D. Cal. July 29, 2013).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member Robert B. Carey and Amy M. Wilkins, both of Phoenix; and Lee M. Gordon and Elaine T. Byszewski, both of Los Angeles.


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