A federal grand jury investigating Toyota Motor Corp. is expanding its inquiry into the automaker's handling of safety issues, subpoenaing documents dealing with defects unrelated to sudden acceleration.
The Japanese automaker disclosed Tuesday that a federal grand jury in New York's Southern District had subpoenaed documents related to faulty steering components. That broadens the panel's inquiry beyond problems related to unintended-acceleration issues, which have led Toyota to issue more than 10 million recall notices worldwide since September.
The subpoena, issued June 29, requests documents related to "defective, broken and/or fractured steering relay rods of Toyota vehicles," Toyota said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"We'll cooperate with the grand jury request," said Mike Michels, a spokesman for Toyota at its Torrance sales headquarters.
The automaker is already under scrutiny by federal safety regulators over its 2005 recall of nearly 1 million pickups and SUVs for steering relay rods that could break without warning.
That investigation, launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in May, seeks to determine whether the automaker delayed the recall, a potential violation of federal law.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, which works with the federal grand jury examining Toyota, declined to comment.
In February, the same federal grand jury subpoenaed Toyota for information related to unintended acceleration in its vehicles as well as braking systems in the Prius hybrid. Toyota has also received subpoenas related to sudden acceleration from the SEC and the attorney general of Michigan.
In April, it agreed to pay a record $16.4-million fine for delaying a recall of gas pedals that could stick.
Toyota did not disclose which vehicles or model years were targeted by the latest subpoena. But its handling of steering defects had come under scrutiny from NHTSA.
In September 2005, Toyota recalled three vehicles covering the 1989 to 1998 model years, including the 4Runner, to repair steering relay rods. That recall affected 977,000 vehicles.
NHTSA officials say they are exploring the timing of the recall, which came nearly a year after a similar action in Japan for the same defect.
According to Toyota, the relay rod could suddenly fail, causing partial or total loss of vehicle control. Such a failure occurred in a Toyota Hilux in Japan in 2004, causing injuries to five people and triggering a police probe of the automaker that indicated that it may have known about the defect for well over a decade before taking action, according to court records.
At the time of the Japanese recall, in October 2004, Toyota informed NHTSA that no recall was necessary in the U.S. because there were no reports of problems here.
John Kristensen, an attorney representing the families of two people killed in accidents involving vehicles subject to that recall, requested that NHTSA open its timeliness investigation in the spring.
He said documents showed that Toyota had received scores, if not hundreds, of complaints from consumers about the vehicle as early as 2000. The Times first reported on those earlier complaints in December.
"We've always contended that they knew steering rods were breaking in the U.S. before they announced the recall in Japan," Kristensen said.
Although it is against the law to mislead NHTSA about safety defects in vehicles, prosecutors have rarely if ever charged an automaker with such a violation.
One reason, according to Ellen Podgor, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., and an expert in white-collar crime, is the enormous complexity of such cases and the eagerness of companies to settle by paying a substantial fine before charges are ever filed.
Increasingly, she said, the Justice Department offers such a deal to companies rather than take them to court. "The collateral damage can be so great to a company if it is indicted," Podgor said. "A company always wants to work something out."