Signaling that the federal government is getting tougher on auto safety enforcement, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it would seek the maximum civil fine of $16.4 million against Toyota Motor Corp. for delays in notifying authorities about defects in its gas pedals. ABC News reported that the government "accused Toyota of, in essence, a cover up, proposing to hit the company with a $16 million fine. The announcement said Toyota had five days to report problems with sticking gas pedals but instead waited months to take action." ABC quotes former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook calling the announcement a "black eye" for the automaker, and adds that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood "blasted" Toyota "for knowingly hiding a dangerous defect. He accused Toyota of failing to ‘take action to protect millions of drivers and their families.’"
NBC Nightly News quoted LaHood as saying, "Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations. Worst yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from US officials," adding that "Toyota responded to the fine saying ‘we have already taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters as part of our strengthened overall commitment to quality assurance.’" The CBS Evening News noted that, notwithstanding its public relations theme of accepting responsibility for its mistakes, "Toyota is expected to appeal" the fine.
$16 million is the most the government could fine the auto maker for a single violation. Toyota faces private lawsuits seeking many millions more. In past product liability litigation, particularly in cases involving sudden acceleration, rather than accept responsibility for design defects, Toyota and other auto manufacturers have engaged in aggressive strategies to hide evidence and blame accidents on operator error. Documents obtained from the automaker show that Toyota knew of the problem with the sticking gas pedals in late September but did not issue a recall until late January.
Toyota has 14 days to contest or accept the penalty. The company has recalled 6 million U.S. vehicles and 8 million worldwide for the accelerator defect and for braking problems with the Prius hybrid.