The US government has fined Toyota Motor Corp $17.35 million after the automaker failed to timely report problems to federal regulators, according to the US Department of Transportation.

After paying $48.8 million in fines for three violations in 2010, the latest fine once again involves safety defects.  The previous fines included problems related to pedal entrapment, sticky pedal and steering relay rod recalls.  This time the fine involves the June recall of 2010 Lexus Rx 350s and RX 450h models.  The recall was issued after it was discovered the driver’s-side floor mat could trap the gas pedal resulting in unexpected acceleration.

Federal law requires an auto manufacturer to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists.  The law further requires that the company perform a recall of the defective product.

In June of this year Toyota announced the recall of 154,036 luxury SUVs.  However, the NHTSA noticed a pattern in owner questionnaires and contacted the company in May.  According to the NHTSA, “Toyota’s own technicians and dealer technicians reported that certain alleged incidents of unwanted acceleration had been caused by floor mat pedal entrapment.”  Toyota responded to the inquiry a month later noting 63 alleged incidents since 2009 before issuing the recall.

The fine levied by the NHTSA is the maximum allowed by law and next year the maximum fine doubles to $35 million.  Yet given Toyota’s track record of four fines in two years, coupled with the recall of more than 10 million vehicles, serious concerns remain over the law’s effectiveness when applied to a corporation whose profits are measured in the billions of dollars quarterly.

Wesley Bowden is an associate attorney at Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A.  He is a member of the firm’s Environmental Department.  His practice focuses upon representing businesses and individuals affected by the BP oil spill.