[JURIST] Toyota Motor Corporation [corporate website; JURIST news archive] on Monday accepted a record civil penalty of $16.375 million [press release] imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) [official website] for a four-month delay in notifying the agency about a problem with "sticky" and "slow to return pedal" gas pedals in various car models. US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood [official profile] announced that Toyota has acknowledged responsibility for violating its legal obligations to report any defects promptly. The fine, the largest ever assessed against a car maker, is based on a preliminary review of extensive corporate documents attained through an investigation [press release] launched by the NHTSA in February. Toyota declined to appeal the fine, and, if further defect-related violations are discovered, the NHTSA may increase the penalty. NHTSA statutes [text, PDF] require that a vehicle manufacturer notify the NHTSA within five days of discovering a safety defect and launch a recall. The NHTSA has evidence that Toyota knew of the defect in late September, but notification and a recall were not launched until January.
Earlier this month, the US Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation (MDL) [official website] consolidated more than 150 pending lawsuits [JURIST report] against Toyota and transferred them to the US District Court for the Central District of California [official website] where Judge James Selna ordered [JURIST report] a May 13 pre-trial conference. In March, the NHTSA enlisted the help of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and NASA [official websites] to conduct a 15-month investigation into the sources of recent safety defects. The agency has faced a hearing [transcript, PDF] before the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce [official website] and strong criticism [FOXNews video] regarding the effectiveness of its recent investigations into car safety defects. Previously, the largest fine assessed by the NHTSA was of $1 million [CNN report] against General Motors for failing to conduct a timely recall in 2004. At the time, the NHTSA was also criticized [CCR report] for appearing to be lenient on the American vehicle manufacturer. Toyota has been under federal scrutiny [NHTSA materials] since December 2009, and has conducted three recalls.