Yesterday’s announcement that Toyota has reached a settlement with the Justice Department was striking on several accounts. First there is the settlement’s sheer size. “Toyota will pay a $1.2 billion penalty to settle the criminal probe into its handling of unintended acceleration problems that led to recalls of 8.1 million vehicles beginning in 2009,” according to an account in USA Today.
The paper adds: “the federal criminal probe… was independent of federal safety regulator and congressional probes of the Toyota sudden-acceleration recalls. It looked at whether Toyota provided false or incomplete statements to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in the events leading to recalls for floor mats that could trap gas pedals and gas pedals that could stick… Toyota already paid two federal fines of $16.375 million in 2010 for delays in reporting the floor mat and pedal defects, and another $17.35 million in 2012 related to an additional mat recall.”
As the paper goes on to report, the problem first came to public attention in 2009 “with a rash of runaway car reports.” Five deaths have been directly linked to the problem, but the larger issue – and the one that Toyota must continue to deal with – is evidence that the company knew about these problems but covered them up.
It is important for Oregonians to understand that the deal Toyota has reached with the federal government regarding its criminal case will not exempt it from potential civil liability stemming from its negligence. As the paper notes, the company has already agreed to pay out “more than $1 billion to resolve hundreds of claims from owners… (but) also faces ongoing wrongful death and injury lawsuits” both in California and in federal courts.
As a Portland lawyer focusing on wrongful deaths and defective products I am happy to see the company making amends with the government, but am even happier to see that this will not deny Oregonians and other Americans injured through Toyota’s willful negligence the chance to confront the company through our legal system. This case is a reminder both of why safety regulations – carefully drawn-up and vigorously enforced – are so important to all of us. It is also a reminder of the key role our courts play in holding greedy companies accountable for their irresponsible actions, particularly when they put the bottom line ahead of people’s safety by working to evade the safety rules created to protect us all.