Automobiles and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Automobiles with keyless, push-button ignitions have been associated with tragic deaths nationwide from carbon monoxide poisoning. According to a review of accident reports by Scripps News published in August 2015, at least 13 Americans have died from carbon monoxide emitted by these vehicles. The design of cars with keyless, push-button systems allows the driver to exit the vehicle without realizing that the engine is still running, then carbon monoxide (a silent killer) seeps into the home and kills sleeping occupants.

The Hidden Dangers Of Push-Button Start Cars Explained

Electronic fobs have changed the way drivers interact with their vehicles. But many drivers still treat the fobs like a traditional car key — in part because car makers call the fobs “smart keys” and style them physically like traditional keys.

A traditional vehicle key cannot be removed from a car’s ignition without turning the engine completely off. However, with a keyless ignition system, the “smart” key actually plays no role in turning the engine on or off. Parking, removing the smart key from its holder, and locking the car does not stop the engine and — critically — does not halt the engine’s near-silent emission of odorless and potentially lethal carbon monoxide. Instead, the driver must push the ignition or power button to start the vehicle or shut off the engine.

The tragic deaths generally occur when drivers accidentally leave their cars running in an enclosed space, such as an attached garage. The driver thinks he or she has turned off the engine by pushing the power button, and then exits the car with the smart key (or fob) but, in fact, the engine continues to run. As the engine runs, carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust can leak into residential areas and reach fatal levels quickly.

A subset of keyless-ignition cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, Consumer Reports notes, “pose an even stealthier problem, because they are virtually silent when in electric mode, which they may well be when sitting still after parking. A driver doesn’t have to be absent-minded to assume that the car is shut down—after all, the engine isn’t running. But the car may not be truly off. The engine could restart itself, say to address a climate control need, potentially sending carbon monoxide into the residence.”

In December 2011, federal safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned that vehicles equipped with the keyless ignition feature posed a “clear safety problem,” citing the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. The agency proposed new safety rules, but nearly four years later the proposals have yet to be implemented.

Keyless Ignition/Smart Key Car Accidental Death Lawsuits

Lawsuits have been filed against Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Kia charging that the auto makers have known for many years that cars with push-button start or keyless ignition systems are more likely to be involved in carbon monoxide poisoning deaths.

If the cars were equipped with a readily-available engine shut-off mechanism, the lawsuits charge that these deaths would never have occurred. Furthermore, according to Consumer Reports, several brands of cars do not warn drivers –- such as by an external chime or chirp of the horn -– that they have left the car running. All manufacturers of push-button ignition cars should include such audible alerts.

Legal Rights of Those Injured by Defective Cars

Automakers have a legal duty to produce cars that are safe, and promptly correct any known safety defects. Damages in personal injury lawsuits against auto manufacturers for selling defective vehicles with safety flaws include damages for:

  • Past and future physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, and physical impairment;
  • Past and future medical, incidental, and hospital expenses;
  • Past and future loss of earnings and earning capacity; and
  • Punitive damages in cases of egregious misconduct.

If the driver or occupant was killed, surviving families members may file a wrongful death lawsuit.

Contact Us

Lieff Cabraser has successfully represented drivers and passengers across the United States injured in car accidents due to safety defects in the vehicle.

If you or a family member have been injured or died as a result of the behavior of a keyless ignition switch, please use the form below to contact Lieff Cabraser for a prompt and confidential evaluation of your case. Or call us toll-free at 1 800-541-7358 and ask to speak to attorney Fabrice Vincent.

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