Hyundai Recalls Sonata for Ejecting Sunroof

Michael GrossmanOctober 24, 2016 6 minutes

In what had to be an embarrassing press release, Hyundai Motors announced the recall of certain 2015 and 2016 Sonata models with panoramic sunroofs. An estimated 62,811 "potentially affected" vehicles are believed to on the road at this time.

It appears the affected Sonatas have problems keeping the sunroofs' tempered glass sheets secured to the vehicles' roofs, resulting in large and dangerous projectiles occasionally being flung off the cars' tops. While it sounds like a scene out of a spy movie, no controlled seat-ejection or parachute deployment follows--usually just some mild panic and one or more very unhappy people.

According to the NHTSA, the panoramic sunroof runs the risk of detaching while the car is in motion. While there are no reported injuries despite multiple reports of this phenomenon in action, it doesn't take much imagination to think of some ways that an airborne sheet of glass could ruin someone's day, or possibly life.

Breaking Down the Problem

According to the recall, the issue is one of poor bonding on the sunroof assembly. A wind deflector is placed in front of the sunroof to reduce wind noise in the cabin when the panel is open (coming from a guy whose car has a sunroof, that sound is pretty annoying without any mitigation).

In certain Sonata models, the anchor plate that holds the wind deflector in place may not be sufficiently bonded to the body of the car. As one might imagine, loose elements on a car don't fare too well in high-speed travel. If the wind deflector becomes partially dismounted while the sunroof is open, it can interfere with the closing sunroof panel. The loose deflector can actually dislodge the sunroof panel from its track (imagine a crowbar prying a board loose for the general effect), at which point the force of the passing wind can lift it away from the assembly. Attempts to manually force the sunroof closed around the detached deflector element can cause similar problems.

Hyundai Sonata sunroof diagram
Wind deflector detaches (1), then lodges in the sunroof (2) as it closes (3). Not pictured: chaos (4).

Drivers may be able detect the issue as it happens, based on increased wind noise and problems closing the sunroof. Owners of affected vehicles are encouraged to take their Sonatas to dealerships, where the wind deflector anchor plates will be re-bonded more strongly to the assembly.

How Bad Could That Be?

Well, without being alarmist, the answer could range anywhere from "Not really, but it'd probably be quite a spectacle" to "It presents a serious hazard to pedestrians and drivers." So far there have been no reported injuries, and naturally I hope it stays that way. There's two main ways something could happen, though:

  1. The less likely scenario involves injured pedestrians. Fortunately, most areas where pedestrians would be encountered don't encourage high-speed driving, and have traffic signs and lights to keep any fast and/or furious driving from taking place. You'd be looking at a conflux of events that would give an actuary nightmares:
    • The Sonata in question would have to be speeding fast enough with its sunroof open to create the environment necessary for the wind deflector panel to detach.
    • The panel would need to lodge in the sunroof to detach the glass sheet as it is closing, automatically or manually.
    • The car would need to brake to a sudden stop--say, if an unexpected pedestrian decided to jaywalk.
    • The glass sheet, now detached from its track, would then be propelled forward and, if the stars truly do align against the pedestrian, would strike him or her--most likely fatally.

    The idea of bulls-eyeing a pedestrian with a sheet of glass is certainly scary, but again, given that the variables have to come together a fairly certain way, the risk is low.

  2. The much more likely notion is that the sunroof will detach on the highway or another high-speed road, and will create a major road hazard. We've talked before about the dangers of debris and detached belongings taking up the road and causing crashes, and either a large sheet of glass or the pile of tempered shards it could break into are serious problems for other motorists. Swerving out of the way of a shattered window or sunroof (or a high-speed airborne one) has a strong chance of causing a subsequent wreck, the source of which could be traced back to this factory defect.

Hyundai is No Stranger to Recalls.

Most auto manufacturers seem to have a few skeletons in their closets at any given time. Unanticipated problems with individual parts seem to come up regardless of which company is using them, and who can blame them? Cars are complex machines, and require more or less perfect harmony between mechanical and electronic components that are subject to regular, sometimes punishing use. If they aren't held to rigorous testing standards before leaving the factory, or analysis shows that a component could be made more cheaply at the sacrifice of some efficiency or integrity, there is a possibility that the machine's internal structure could be compromised.

Sometimes the recall relates to something innocuous but irritating, like chronic oil leaks recently found in some Subaru vehicles. Other times a very serious and wide-ranging problem is discovered that prompts a worldwide recall by several different auto makers, such as the exploding propellant canisters behind the ongoing Takata airbag recall.

Hyundai has its own share of recalls, as its products do not always meet projected performance standards. Glancing over their current recall listings, we can see most of their popular models (Elantra, Sonata, Accent, Azera) experiencing a variety of issues, from airbag failures to brake light shorts to suspension and alignment damage. These problems span various years of each model, and range from roughly six thousand to over a million possibly-affected vehicles.

As with most recalls, Hyundai's issues seem to indicate one of a couple of things:

  1. Quality control is lacking. Whatever testing they may have performed, it conceivably was not rigorous enough to have discovered the problem before it had a chance to cause injuries. In other words, they may not have known, but they should have.
  2. More cynically, one could theorize that Hyundai did know about the problems, but determined that they were statistically unlikely to happen. Even with foreknowledge of possible danger, the company released the product to the market.

Neither one of these is guaranteed to be the case, of course. Virtually any product carries with it some degree of risk, and I'm not here to suggest any truly malicious intent on the part of Hyundai or its executives. If either of the above can be proven, however, it suggests that the company could be found liable of negligence, a common cause of action in personal injury litigation.

Given the nature of the described problem, Hyundai could be considered negligent for not properly attaching the Sonata's sunroof deflector plate while the vehicle was still in the factory. Applying a bonding agent with sufficient strength and density to keep the part from flying off the car is not intricate or resource-intensive work. Using what's called the "Reasonable Person Standard," I think most would agree that logically, failing to glue something down fully could be hazardous when it is exposed to separating force, like high-speed wind. The fact that it can subsequently jam up the works of a sunroof and make a Sonata pop its top could be prevented with a better application of bonding agent.

What Do I Do If I'm Injured by A Sunroof?

Before I comment on that, I want to say again that I hope this whole thing passes by without anyone actually getting injured. So far that has been the case, so what we're looking at today are just "what-if" scenarios that I hope don't play out. A flying sheet of tempered glass is serious business, and it can definitely wreck someone's weekend plans whether it breaks or not. Even if no one is directly hit by the sunroof panel, there's also the significant possibility of having to swerve to avoid it if it comes at you in traffic. Loss of vehicle control is a primary factor of wrecks, even at lower speeds.

If someone is injured either from direct damage or from an accident they endured while trying to avoid the glass, they may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturer. By issuing the recall, Hyundai is acknowledging the malfunction, and that they have an obligation to buyers of this product to keep them safe from it.

A good personal injury attorney will be able to prove that 1) Hyundai failed to observe its obligation to consumers by creating an unsafe product, 2) the flaw in the product was the reason behind the plaintiff's injury, and that resultantly 3) the auto maker is responsible for compensating the victim.

The recall itself is evidence that Hyundai is now aware of the problem, but they are not exonerated just because they now say "Oops, by the way..." It is possible that the statute of limitations may begin to run from the time of the officially-released recall notice, but it will still be quite some time before all sixty-two thousand registered vehicles can be accounted for--and many never will be.

I strongly encourage anyone injured by a vehicle malfunction or in a car crash to get in touch with a personal injury attorney to investigate his or her options. Most firms, Grossman Law included, do not charge for consultations, and it can't hurt to have a few more answers while deciding what comes next.