Toyota to pay $1.2B after fatal Santee crash

SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday that Toyota Motor Corp. will pay $1.2 billion to settle a criminal case and wide-ranging probe investigation that stemmed from a quadruple-fatal crash in 2009 in Santee.

Federal prosecutors alleged the company misled consumers after the crash about safety issues involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

The Aug. 28, 2009, crash, which occurred where state Route 125 terminates at Mission Gorge Road, killed California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor of Chula Vista; his 45-year-old wife, Cleofe; 13-year-old daughter, Mahala; and 38-year-old brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella.

They had just picked up a 2009 Lexus ES 350 as a loaner from a dealership in El Cajon when the accelerator became jammed in an improperly installed floor mat. The vehicle careened through a T-intersection at high speed, struck a Ford Explorer, plowed through a picket fence, went over an embankment and came to rest in the bed of the San Diego River.

The car burst into flames, burning the occupants beyond recognition.

Toyota paid $10 million to the Saylors' relatives. However, federal prosecutors said company officials deceived regulators by saying the root cause of the stuck accelerator problems -- which had plagued Toyota and Lexus vehicles for a couple of years before the crash -- had been solved in a limited recall.

"Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to members of Congress," Attorney General Eric Holder said at a Washington, D.C., news conference. "When car owners get behind the wheel, they have a right to expect that their vehicle is safe. If any part of the automobile turns out to have safety issues, the car company has a duty to be upfront about them, to fix them quickly, and to immediately tell the truth about the problem and its scope."

Holder said Toyota "violated that basic compact."

"Put simply, Toyota's conduct was shameful," Holder said. "By the company's own admissions, it protected its' brand ahead of its own customers. This constitutes a clear and reprehensible abuse of the public's trust."

Holder added, "... they (Toyota) mounted this cover up despite widely documented incidents and even tragic accidents like the one that took the life of an off-duty CHP officer and members of his family."

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Toyota knew about floor mat troubles back in 2007.  

"Two years later, tragedy struck," Bharara said. "The immediate aftermath brought intense public scrutiny as well as multiple investigations … Rather than come clean, the company covered up and misled again, and again and again."

The settlement, which is the largest involving an automobile manufacturer, also imposes on Toyota an independent monitor to review and assess policies, practices and procedures for making safety-related public statements and reporting obligations.

In a statement, Christopher P. Reynolds, chief legal officer for Toyota Motor North America, said:

"At the time of these recalls, we took full responsibility for any concerns our actions may have caused customers, and we rededicated ourselves to earning their trust. In the more than four years since these recalls, we have gone back to basics at Toyota to put our customers first.

We have made fundamental changes across our global operations to become a more responsive company - listening better to our customers' needs and proactively taking action to serve them."

Read the full statement:

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