Automaker to pay record $16.4M fine, recall SUVs

A Department of Transportation official said Monday that Toyota will recall the 2010 Lexus GX 460 to address a potential problem with the sport utility vehicle rolling over.

Pat Wellenbach

WASHINGTON -- Toyota Motor Corp. said Monday that it will pay a record $16.4 million fine for its huge acceleration recalls and then moved to recall new Lexus SUVs to address potential rollover problems. Despite paying the fine, the Japanese auto giant denied violating any U.S. laws.

The penalty, the largest the Transportation Department legally could seek, was the equivalent of Toyota paying more than $2 for every vehicle it sold around the globe in 2009. Analysts said the penalty would have little impact on dozens of lawsuits, which have been combined before a federal judge in Santa Ana, Calif.

"In the court of public opinion, paying the fine speaks volumes. But at the end of the day, the fines are simply background noise in terms of the civil litigation," said Richard Arsenault, a plaintiff's attorney in Alexandria, La.

Addressing more safety concerns, Toyota planned to recall the 2010 Lexus GX 460 to address a potential problem with the sport utility vehicle rolling over, said a Department of Transportation official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The new recall affects about 34,000 vehicles worldwide that have been sold since the SUV went on sale in late December. Consumer Reports issued a "Don't Buy" warning last week. Toyota responded by halting sales of new GX 460s and conducting tests on all of its SUVs.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota "put consumers at risk" in the earlier recall by failing to promptly notify the government about potentially defective accelerator pedals on 2.3 million vehicles. LaHood said Toyota knew about the problem in late September but failed to issue the recall until late January, violating a federal law that requires an automaker to notify the government of a safety defect within five business days.

"They did not disclose within five days that there was a problem. They didn't disclose it for several months, so we fined them the maximum amounts and they decided to pay it and that means they knew they did something wrong," LaHood said. "They did try to hide it -- that's what we accused them of -- and they've agreed to that."

Toyota said it agreed to the penalty "to avoid a protracted dispute and possible litigation" but denied the government's allegation that it violated the law.

"We believe we made a good faith effort to investigate this condition and develop an appropriate countermeasure. We have acknowledged that we could have done a better job of sharing relevant information within our global operations and outside the company, but we did not try to hide a defect to avoid dealing with a safety problem," Toyota said.