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Toyota fined $1.2 billion in unintended acceleration cases

Toyota has agreed to pay $1.2 billion in fines for its behavior involving the unintended acceleration problem with many of its vehicles. U.S. attorney general Eric Holder Jr., announced the criminal penalty last week, describing the company's attempts to hide the defects from consumers and federal safety officials as "shameful."

Toyota spent years fighting the recall of vehicles, and at times issued public statements regarding denying problems with defective products used in their vehicles, including floor mats in some vehicles that could jam under brake pedals and sticky accelerator assemblies. 

In situations like this, companies often attempt to "blame the victim" and argue it was user error that caused the fatal crash. Especially if the victim is elderly, company lawyers like to suggest that they became confused and stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. The death of a California highway Patrol officer in a Lexus SUV was more difficult to deflect, as arguing he did not know how to drive was problematic.

Internal memos showed the company knew of the problems and actively worked to prevent recalls in an effort to save the company money. The criminal charges in the Justice Department's investigation stem from the company lying to federal regulators.

The fine, the largest ever levied against a car company, can also be seen as a warning shot for General Motors, which is facing its own potential federal investigation over the defective ignition switch on more than 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other GM cars.

GM, which also aggressively fought the recall of these vehicles, appears to have known of the defective ignition switch as early as 2001. They finally recalled the vehicles in February of 2014.

Source: The Economist, "Lexus settlement," March 19, 2014

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