In what some are calling a slap on the wrist, Toyota faces a record civil penalty of $16.4 million, less than 2% of Toyota's projected net profit for the year ending March 31, related to a January recall of 2.3 million U.S. autos for accelerator pedals that allegedly stick. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday stated that in assigning the fine, which is the largest it can presently levy against the Japanese automaker, Toyota failed to act in a timely manner after knowing of the problem since at least September 2009.

To date, Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the United States, and more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models, and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.

Ray LaHood, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, told the greater press that federal officials are poring over 70,000 documents related to Toyota safety problems, and could find more lapses by the Japanese automaker.

In a statement, LaHood said Tuesday that Toyota made a "huge mistake" by not disclosing safety problems with gas pedals on a number of models. He said the government wouldn't stand for that behavior for "one second."

Officials say documents obtained from the automaker show that Toyota knew of the problem with sticking gas pedals as early as September, but did not issue a recall until late January. 

LaHood further inflamed the issue by stating that he wouldn't be surprised if new information is uncovered in the documents.

Toyota may find a silver lining in the growing cloud: The assessment by LaHood and NHTSA won't be admitted directly as evidence in trials against the company, said W. Mark Lanier, a Houston attorney who has filed class action and individual lawsuits related to the claims. Currently, Toyota faces at least 177 suits seeking class action, or group status, and at least 56 individual suits over sudden acceleration.

“It's not like a criminal finding in that there was due process,” Lanier said in a story reported by the Associated Press. “The underlying facts that prompted the fine will come into evidence.”

The first surge of consumer and insurance-based lawsuits against Toyota over faulty gas pedals is expected to hit Arizona and federal courts soon, notes the Phoenix Business Journal. But, say legal experts, the bulk of the suits against Toyota will be focused first on insurance claims, not necessarily injuries that may have been caused by faulty pedals.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp. saw sales jump more than 40% last month, after the company issued incentives, including cheap leases, 0% financing and a two-year free maintenance program as part of a sales incentive program. The company said today it would continue to offer most of its heavy sales incentives in April.

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