BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A 16-year-old accused of driving a stolen SUV involved in a high-speed crash that killed four teenage passengers was arraigned Tuesday on manslaughter and other charges.
The parents of two of those killed, meanwhile, have filed a lawsuit against automaker Kia, claiming their children would be alive if its cars were harder to steal.
A total of six teens were in the Kia Sportage when it crashed on state Route 33 on Oct. 24, Buffalo police said. The car had been reported stolen the previous night.
The driver, apparently held in by an airbag and the steering wheel, was the only occupant not ejected through the sunroof when the vehicle struck a concrete embankment at high speed and flipped backwards, District Attorney John Flynn said. The driver was treated at a hospital and released. A 14-year-old girl also survived.
The driver, whose name was not released, pleaded not guilty in Erie County Court on Tuesday to charges of manslaughter, assault and possession of stolen property. He was released under supervision with an ankle monitor, according to Flynn, who said opposed the release.
Flynn told reporters the teen was charged as an adolescent but he would argue to keep the case in adult court at a hearing next week.
“I still don’t think it’s right that this kid is out playing video games when on Thursday at Thanksgiving, there’s going to be an empty chair of four individuals at the Thanksgiving dinner table,” he said.
The 16-year-old's attorney said in court that those killed were close friends.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said after the crash that the teens may have been participating in a TikTok challenge encouraging people to break into and steal Kia cars using cellphone chargers.
The so-called Kia challenge showed how to hot-wire Kias and Hyundais with a USB cord and a screwdriver. Many police departments around the country have reported increases in Kia and Hyundai thefts since the video was posted last summer.
A federal lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the mothers of 15-year-old Kevn Payne Jr. and 17-year-old Swazine Swindle, who died in the Buffalo crash, seeks unspecified damages while accusing Kia Corp. and Kia America Inc. of negligence and creating a public nuisance. It alleges that Kia failed to include an anti-theft device on certain vehicles and did not recall the cars or warn the public when the issue became evident.
California attorney Jonathan Michaels, who represents the parents, said no one should be stealing cars but social media can have a powerful pull.
“This is something that, on a young brain that’s not fully developed, that temptation is just so strong,” Michaels, of MLG Attorneys at Law, said by phone, “and they’re not understanding the consequences of what they’re doing, and all their friends are doing it. So it's foreseeable this is happening, and it’s a defect to begin with.”
An insurance industry group has said some Kias are stolen at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the auto industry because their keys lack computer chips for theft “immobilizer” systems.
Kia has since announced it would include an immobilizer for all vehicles starting with model year 2022.
A spokesman for the automaker said the company generally does not respond to pending litigation.