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Former Kia worker blows whistle on car fires and repairs: “People’s lives are at risk”

Posted at 9:32 PM, Jan 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 12:35:10-05

A former employee at Kia’s corporate headquarters says he warned the automaker as far back as 2017 that faulty engine recall work was to blame for car fires.

“I’m coming forward because people’s lives are at risk,” Jason Vaughn told I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway in an exclusive sit-down interview.

Vaughn worked for the warranty department at the headquarters for Kia Motors America in Irvine, California before he left the company last month – claiming he was pushed out of his job for raising concerns about the car fires.

Vaughn told the I-Team he was performing Kia dealer audits in 2017 when he discovered dealerships performing engine recalls improperly – leading to highly flammable fuel pump leaks.

Vaughn said he alerted his boss during a warranty operations meeting circa November 2017 but didn’t get the reaction he expected.

“The warranty operations manager was not receptive at all,” said Vaughn. “She didn’t think that it was something that we should look at.”


Hundreds of spontaneous vehicle fires

So far, drivers in 44 states have reported 276 Kia and Hyundai fires – including 25 in Florida, according to the Center for Auto Safety, which provided figures through the first week of January.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York City has also reportedly opened an investigation into whether Kia and Hyundai handled engine recalls properly. Kia and Hyundai have refused to comment on any possible federal investigations.

Just days after I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway interviewed Vaughn and contacted Kia about his claims, the automaker and its sister company, Hyundai, announced a plan to recall more than 150,000 cars and SUVs for fuel pump issues.
Kia estimates its fuel pump recall would involve more than 50,000 Kia Optimas, more than 17,000 Kia Sorentos and about 1,000 Kia Sportages. Hyundai estimates about 100,000 vehicles will be recalled.

Despite that recall, Kia said the company “is not aware of any accidents or injuries as a result of this issue.”

Auto watchdog wants more cars recalled

But a watchdog group is already calling for the automakers to expand their recall, saying it suspects many more vehicles not on the recall list pose a fire risk. Last year, the Center for Auto Safety announced it wanted Kia and Hyundai to recall nearly 3 million vehicles due to concerns over car fires.

“Kia and Hyundai undertook the smallest step possible to respond to hundreds of complaints over many years regarding their vehicles bursting into flames while people are driving them,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “This action, much like their unwillingness to appear before Congress, suggests a continued effort to avoid full responsibility by both companies.”

In November, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee called for a hearing on Kia and Hyundai fires, but that hearing – scheduled for Nov. 14 – was canceled after the CEOs for the auto giants refused to attend and explain what’s causing these fires.

The I-Team first uncovered the post-engine recall fire hazard in Kia vehicles in November – after speaking with auto experts and tracking down a mechanic bulletin from 2011 that warned of the potential of fuel leaks if engine replacement work wasn’t done properly.

Two separate Kia owners – one in North Carolina and the other in Louisiana – shared videos with ABC Action News that showed spewing fuel pumps just weeks after their engine recall replacements.

“There’s never been in my 25 years in the industry… a situation this dangerous,” said Vaughn. “You’ve handed them the keys to a car that could potentially start on fire and burn to the ground within 10 to 15 seconds – which you can’t get out of the car that fast.”

Vaughn told the I-Team his biggest fear is a car catching on fire with young children inside.

“The biggest thing that comes to my mind is I imagine a mother driving her car with her child in a car seat in the back seat and the car catching on fire,” said Vaughn. “That’s the worst possible thing that could happen.”

Pasco County mom on car fire: ‘It really was fast’

Chris McGuire-Wolfe said she’s thankful her two young sons weren’t in the car when her 2012 Kia Sorento burst into flames as she drove down State Road 52 last month. McGuire-Wolfe showed ABC Action News how her younger son’s booster seat melted into the back seat during the fire.

McGuire-Wolfe, a Pasco County firefighter, said she doesn’t think she would have been able to get her two sons – ages 7 and 11 – out of the car in time. She said she didn’t even have time to grab her wallet from the passenger seat before escaping her burning vehicle.

“It was fast,” said McGuire-Wolfe. “It really was fast.”

McGuire-Wolfe also said she didn’t receive an engine recall notice from Kia until the night after the fire – meaning botched recall work is not to blame in her case and raising the possibility there are other potential causes to these fires.

McGuire-Wolfe showed the I-Team an email from Kia confirming they inspected her burned-out car. The I-Team requested a copy of that inspection report, but a spokesman said the company is still reviewing McGuire-Wolfe’s case.

Former Kia employee registers as whistleblower

Vaughn said his bosses pushed him out of his job because of his concerns over car fires. He showed the I-Team a confirmation email that shows he submitted an application to become a federal whistleblower with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC’s Whistleblower Program was created by Congress to provide monetary incentives for those who report possible violations of the federal securities laws. A spokesman for the SEC told ABC Action News the agency could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any complaints or investigations.

A Kia spokesman confirmed Vaughn voluntarily resigned from Kia Motors America in December and said the company “cannot comment on Mr. Vaughn’s departure from KMA, and it is our policy to never retaliate against any employee for bringing up safety concerns or employment matters. We take our policy against retaliation very seriously.”

The spokesman also told the I-Team Kia has repeatedly warned its car dealerships about the issues Vaughn cited and said it brought Vaughn’s concerns to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In an email, Kia said, “we have and are continuing to look into his claims regarding vehicle fires and various unrelated issues… KMA will not be communicating with Mr. Vaughn through the news media.”

Vaughn said there were six other Kia employees in the room when he brought up his car fire concerns with management at the 2017 meeting. The I-Team reached out to those six workers and Vaughn’s former manager via emails, phone calls and messages on social media sites for comment on that meeting. The manager and one of those workers directed the I-Team to contact Kia’s corporate communications. The others did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Kia spokesman did not respond to questions about the meeting or when company leaders first learned about Vaughn’s concerns.

A spokesman for Hyundai said the company “learned at the end of last year that Kia was investigating potential concerns with fuel pipe reinstallation. Hyundai is not aware of any fires caused by this issue and does not have any evidence that its dealers are performing repairs incorrectly. We are conducting the follow-on recall out of an abundance of caution and to ensure the safety of our customers.”

Kia Motors America issued two statements on Vaughn and the whistleblower situation. The first can be read here and the second can be read here.

The reaction

Local Kia driver Taylor Price told the I-Team he’s frustrated after hearing Vaughn’s account on ABC Action News.

“The fact you would not take the steps to seek that out immediately and people are at risk of losing their lives,” said Price after watching I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway’s interview with the Kia whistleblower.

Price said he was driving his 2011 Kia Optima earlier this month on New Year’s Day when he noticed the strong smell of gas.

“I immediately think fire whenever I smell gas,” said Price. “I knew I needed to pull over immediately.”

When he opened his hood, he said he found a leak in his fuel pump and shared video he shot of the leak with the I-Team.

Price said he complained the next day about the problem, but a Kia dealership said they couldn’t make the repair because it wasn’t under warranty. Price said he ended up purchasing a replacement part and making the repair himself.

As part of the recent recall, Kia said it will reimburse Taylor for that repair.

A Hyundai spokesman also responded to the I-Team’s story, emailing:

“We do not have plans to expand the recent fuel tube recall because the recall is to inspect the fuel tube installation of approximately 100,000 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata and 2013-2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport vehicles whose engines were replaced under the previous two recalls. The recall is to inspect the fuel tube installation of replaced engines. The recall covers all 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata and 2013-2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport vehicles whose engines were replaced. We are not aware of or investigating any fires caused by this issue, but are conducting the follow-on recall out of an abundance of caution.”