WASHINGTON — The government is seeking to fine Toyota a record $16.375 million, accusing the Japanese auto giant of hiding a "dangerous defect" in its slow reporting of faulty gas pedals that have been blamed for unintended sudden accelerations and motorists' deaths.
The proposed fine, announced Monday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is the most the government could levy for the sticking gas pedals that have led Toyota to recall millions of vehicles. There could be further penalties under continuing federal investigations, and Toyota also faces private lawsuits seeking many millions more.
Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the United States and more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.
Documents obtained from the Japanese 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, LaHood said. The sticking pedals involved 2.3 million vehicles.
"We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations," LaHood said in a statement. "Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families."
For those reasons, LaHood said, the government is seeking the maximum penalty possible. That dwarfs the previous record: In 2004, General Motors paid a $1 million fine for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure. Toyota has two weeks to accept or contest the penalty.
Under federal law, automakers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.
The Transportation Department said that the fine it is seeking is specifically tied to the sticking pedal defect and that Toyota could face additional penalties if warranted by investigations.
The government has linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by accelerator problems in Toyotas. The recalls have led to congressional hearings, a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, dozens of lawsuits and an intense review by the Transportation Department.
Consumer groups have suggested electronics could be the culprit, and dozens of Toyota owners who had their cars fixed in the recall have complained of more problems with their vehicles.