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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s $16.4 million civil penalty against Toyota could bolster legal claims that the automaker committed consumer fraud and racketeering. It also could assist plaintiffs attorneys in obtaining thousands of documents for use in their cases, according to plaintiffs lawyers and legal experts. “Factually, it validates the legitimacy of our allegations that Toyota has been misleading the federal government and consumers, as far as the severity of the problems with their sticky pedals and their whole electronic throttle control system,” said Tim Howard, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who is leading a consortium of more than two dozen plaintiffs lawyers with suits against Toyota. In particular, he said, the findings significantly bolster claims that Toyota committed fraud against consumers by hiding problems associated with its accelerator pedals. The fines also may assist suits alleging that Toyota violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by conspiring to mislead consumers and the federal government about the extent of its safety problems, he said. “That’s the basis for the fines, as well,” Howard said. “These fines and civil actions parallel each other.” The fines also could boost class actions filed on behalf of shareholders, said Darren Robbins, founding partner of San Diego’s Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, which has a class action pending against Toyota on behalf of its shareholders. “It’s further confirmation that the statements made by defendants were false and misleading,” he said. Toyota issued a formal statement regarding the fines: “While we have not yet received their letter, we understand that NHTSA has taken a position on this recall. We have already taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters as part of our strengthened overall commitment to quality assurance.” Toyota Motor Corp. issued a statement on Tuesday saying that it was considering its response to the fines. “Toyota has and will continue to practice its philosophy of satisfying consumers with high quality vehicles that are safe and reliable, and responding to consumer feedback with honesty and integrity,” the company said in the statement. Among those steps, Toyota said, is appointing a new chief quality officer for North America. Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide due to sudden acceleration problems. In announcing the penalty, which is the largest that could be brought against an automobile manufacturer, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Monday that Toyota had failed to promptly report to U.S. regulators that accelerator pedals in numerous vehicles tended to get stuck in the depressed position. The Japanese automaker waited until Jan. 21 — about four months after first issuing repair notices in Canada and Europe — to recall 2.3 million vehicles that could have problems with their acceleration pedals. Companies are supposed to report safety defects to U.S. regulators within five days of discovering the problems. “We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations,” LaHood said. “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.” Toyota has two weeks to accept or contest the fine. The findings could help plaintiffs lawyers seek out more documents in discovery, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in products liability law. “It may strengthen their cases or their procedural posture when they ask for discovery,” he said about the plaintiffs lawyers. Mark Robinson, a partner at Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach, Calif., who has filed two suits against Toyota, was skeptical that Toyota would turn over the nearly 80,000 pages that NHTSA reviewed in assessing the penalty. Additionally, the sanction is limited to Toyota’s conduct since September with respect to the recall of accelerator pedals; it does not address allegations in many of the pending lawsuits that the electronic throttle systems in its vehicles, not accelerator pedals or floor mats, were to blame for sudden acceleration problems dating to 2002. In a way, he said, the penalty could turn out to be a “distraction,” Robinson said. “I look at this NHTSA penalty as unrelated to the sudden acceleration problems,” he said. “The argument on concealment goes a lot farther, and it’s the electronic concealment I really want to push here.” He pinned some hope on further penalties that could be assessed against Toyota. NHTSA has indicated that investigations are pending of Toyota’s other recalls tied to sudden acceleration issues.

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