WASHINGTON, March 19 (UPI) -- Toyota Motor Corp. will pay $1.2 billion to settle a criminal probe of how it handled unintended acceleration in its vehicles, the U.S. Justice Department said.
In the settlement announced Wednesday, Toyota admitted to misleading consumers and federal regulators about safety issues related to unintended acceleration in its cars and officials said an independent monitor would be appointed to oversee the automaker's statements and reporting of safety issues, the Justice Department said in a release.
Government prosecutors said Toyota defrauded consumers in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 by issuing misleading statements about safety issues that, in effect, turned some Toyota and Lexus models into runaway vehicles. Toyota blamed floor mats that could jam beneath the gas pedal. It also recalled potentially sticky accelerator mechanisms in several models.
Federal officials said they would defer prosecution on a criminal wire fraud charge against Toyota for the Japanese automaker's admission that it misled U.S. consumers.
The agreement, subject to judicial review, requires Toyota to pay a $1.2 billion financial penalty, the largest penalty of its kind imposed on an automaker, Justice Department officials said.
If Toyota adheres to the terms of the agreement, the government will defer prosecution on the charge for three years and then seek to dismiss it.
"Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to members of Congress," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "When car owners get behind the wheel, they have a right to expect that their vehicle is safe. ... Other car companies should not repeat Toyota's mistake: A recall may damage a company's reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting."
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted the penalties announced Wednesday were in addition to the record civil penalties of more than $66 million issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
"[Together], they send a powerful message to all manufacturers to follow our recall requirements or they will face serious consequences," Foxx said.
Toyota has paid $1.6 billion to car owners in the cases, and federal fines of $16.375 million in 2010 and $17.35 million in 2012 for delays in safety defect reporting, the Detroit Free Press reported.
The cases involve instances in which Toyota vehicles accelerated when the drivers did not intend to accelerate. After an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three passengers in a Lexus ES were killed near San Diego in 2009, other reports surfaced.