Could Toyota Face Criminal Charges?

There is a chance Toyota could face criminal charges in the U.S. over its handling of recent recalls for unintended acceleration. According to a report in USA Today, a federal law adopted in 2000 could make such charges possible.

The law in question is known as the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. According to USA Today, TREAD was enacted in response to rollover recalls involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires. It makes individuals who intentionally mislead federal regulators about safety defects subject to possible criminal fines and even prison.

Since last fall, Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide for problems involving sudden acceleration. Toyota has blamed the speed control issues on defective floor mats and faulty accelerator pedals, but some experts suspect that problems with the vehicles’ electronic throttle control system could really be behind the problems. Such suspicions have increased recently, as dozens of Toyota owners whose vehicles underwent recall repairs have recently complained that their vehicles are still experiencing problems with unintended acceleration.

As we’ve reported previously, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the timeliness of the recent Toyota recalls, and the company could face civil penalties if the agency finds something was askew. But according to USA Today, the automaker was also served with a subpoena last month by a New York grand jury looking into sudden acceleration problems, as well as problems with brakes on Prius and Lexus hybrids. The grand jury investigation is a signal that a criminal probe is underway, USA Today said.

Both the NHTSA and the Justice Department will be trying to determine if Toyota should informed safety regulators about problems sooner and whether it “provided all the information that was requested in the course of its defect investigations.”

In addition to the NHTSA and Justice Department probes, Toyota has also faced a number of congressional investigations over the recent recalls. The Associated Press reported today that one committee conducting such a probe, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is requesting more information from Toyota. In a letter to James E. Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A, Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. questioned Toyota’s repeated assertions that electronics are not behind any of the speed control problems.

The letter complains that there is “an absence of documents” to show whether the company thoroughly investigated the possibility of unintended acceleration. According to the Associated Press, the committee asked who is involved with the testing and demanded that it be given quarterly reports detailing allegations of the unwanted acceleration.

“We do not understand the basis for Toyota’s repeated assertions that it is ‘confident’ there are no electronic defects contributing to incidents of sudden unintended acceleration,” the lawmakers wrote.

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