Toyota has been charged with failing to promptly report a dangerous floor mat pedal defect found in its Lexus cars, and has thus been slapped with a hefty fine amounting to $17.35 million—the maximum fine allowed by law.

The penalty, which was announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s NHTSA or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on December 18, is the single highest civil penalty amount that will ever be pad for violations that stem from a product recall.

The NHTSA began to notice the trend in floor pedal sticking among 2010 Lexus RX models in 2012. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that Toyota’s dealers and technicians had already been aware of such defect for the past three years.

Toyota ordered a tremendous recall in June, made up of 154,000 2010 Lexus cars.

According to federal law, auto manufacturers are required to notify NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect. The law also dictates that the maker conduct a product recall promptly.

Under the product liability law in the state of Florida, manufacturers, distributors and sellers may be held liable if a particular product was defective, and if a consumer sustained injuries as a result of the defect.

When NHTSA Administrator David Strickland announced the Toyota penalty, he stated how critical it was to the safety of the driving public that all manufacturers report safety defects in an extremely timely manner. Every moment of delay, after all, can result in injuries or deaths.

According to the NHTSA press release, the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation noticed the trend in floor mat pedal entrapment among 2010 Lexus RX 350s in VOQs or Vehicle Owner Questionnaires, as well as Early Warning Reporting data. This was in early 2012.

In May, Toyota was contacted by the NHTSA about the trend, and Toyota advised them a month later that it was aware of 63 alleged incidents of potential floor mat pedal entrapment in the specific Lexus model since 2009.

In June, Toyota notified NHTSA that the company would be conducting a recall of 154,036 two models in order to address the problem of floor mat pedal entrapment: the 2010 Lexus RX 350 and the 2010 RX 450h.

As a settlement condition, Toyota agreed to modify how the company conducts quality checks of its vehicles and reviews safety-related issues across the United States.

As a result of three separate investigations in the automaker’s handling of auto recalls, Toyota agreed to pay the amount of $48.8 million in 2010. The company paid the maximum amount of civil penalties for its violations related to sticky pedal, pedal entrapment, and steering relay rod recalls.

Manufacturers have a legal responsibility to provide Florida consumers with safe products or to warn of the risks their products pose.

Source: NHTSA http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/2012/