The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Monday said it was seeking a $16.38 million fine against Japanese auto giant Toyota for its failure to quickly notify authorities about vehicle safety problems.
After poring over 70,000 pages of evidence, the NHTSA said it was seeking "the maximum civil penalty against Toyota" after it failed to report safety defects in a timely manner.
According to the NHTSA, Toyota failed to report "the dangerous 'sticky pedal' defect for at least four months, despite knowing of the potential risk to consumers."
It is the largest civil fine against an automaker ever sought by the NHTSA.
Toyota has recalled around 2.3 million cars in the United States for the pedal defect and more than eight million cars worldwide over several problems, including the sticking accelerator pedal which caused cars to speed out of control.
"Auto manufacturers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists," the department said in a statement.
"We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the statement. "Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from US officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws."
The recalls have caused an outcry in the United States, with Toyota executives hauled over the coals by Congress and the company's previously stellar reputation for safety left in tatters.
Toyota insists the problems were caused by mechanical defects including a sticking accelerator pedal, but is facing allegations it is due to an electronic failure.
The NHTSA said Monday's announcement related only to the sticky-pedal issue and said it "is still investigating Toyota to determine if there are additional violations that warrant further penalties."
Toyota has two weeks to agree to pay the fine, or contest it. If the two parties cannot agree to a settlement they could go to court.
In a statement Toyota said it had not yet received a letter from the NHTSA, and said it was taking steps to rectify the company failings.
"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.
"These include the appointment of a new chief quality officer for North America and a greater role for the region in making safety-related decisions," the automaker said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010