Whistleblower awarded $24 million for providing information about Kia and Hyundai violations

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The agency encourages consumers to reach out if they're having issues with their vehicle

A whistleblower’s efforts in revealing violations of the Safety Act have made them millions richer. In its first ever whistleblower award, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is giving more than $24 million to a whistleblower for providing information to the NHTSA about Hyundai Motor America (Hyundai) and Kia Motors America (Kia).

The award is the maximum percentage allowed by law of the $81 million in cash collected by the federal government. By law, the NHTSA can award a whistleblower who contributes “significant information” regarding an action that ultimately results in penalties of more than a million dollars.

Where Hyundai and Kia went wrong

The NHTSA said it issued consent orders with Hyundai and Kia a year ago based on the agency’s assessment that both companies made two serious mistakes. For one, they conducted untimely recalls on over 1.6 million vehicles that were equipped with Theta II engines. Secondly, they inaccurately reported crucial information to the NHTSA about the nature of serious defects in those engines. 

“Whistleblowers play a crucial role in bringing information to NHTSA about serious safety problems that are hidden from the agency,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “This information is critical to public safety and we are committed to rewarding those who bring information to us.”

The issues the NHTSA found weren’t exactly new. Dating back to 2018, one ConsumerAffairs reviewer -- Jody of Waxhaw, N.C. -- wrote about issues with their Hyundai Tucson and its Theta II engine.

“Driving down a street 35 mph, the 2013 Tucson engine made loud sound all the lights came on and car shuddered and would not drive. Moved to side of road and towed to dealership. Theta-ii engine seized. Not repairable,” Jody wrote.

It was at that point that Hyundai made a misstep that was similar to the move that cost them that massive NHTSA fine. 

“Dealership and manufacture[r] refused to help in any way despite known problem. Recalls have been made on this same engine in the Sonata and Santa Fe but not the Tucson. Eventually traded in as cost to replace engine with used engine (no new ones available) was prohibitive,” Jody wrote. “The manufacturer was nonchalant and said they could not help us. We asked about the warranty and they said their warranty is only for original owner. We went to a Hyundai dealership and did not find that information anywhere! Dealership offered to sell us a new Hyundai. Will never buy their products again.”

The NHTSA wants consumers to know they, too, can file complaints

The NHTSA wants any consumer who is experiencing problems with their vehicle to know that whistleblowers are protected by law. The agency doesn’t have to issue a final rule for a whistleblower to receive a reward either. 

The NHTSA says potential whistleblowers can provide information to the agency by emailing NHTSAWhistleblower@dot.gov or by calling the agency’s hotline at 888-327-4236.

Information that the NHTSA welcomes runs the gamut -- from possible vehicle safety defects to noncompliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and violations of the Vehicle Safety Act.

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