Three Toyota officials are under criminal investigation on suspicion of professional negligence in allegedly shirking recalls for eight years and not fixing a defect that may have caused an accident, police said Tuesday.
Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) denied its officials had engaged in any wrongdoing.
Kumamoto police in southern Japan have accused three Toyota quality-control officials aged 62, 58 and 55. Their names were not disclosed.
Five people were injured in a head-on crash in Kumamoto in August 2004 when the steering failed in a 1993 Toyota Hilux Surf sport utility vehicle, similar to the 4Runner SUV sold in North America, causing it to swing out of control into the wrong lane.
Toyota said a recall was carried out in October 2004 for 330,000 Hilux Surfs manufactured between December 1988 and May 1996, to deal with a part in the steering system that could break.
Toyota said it had received five reports of problems with the steering by 1996 but these problems were limited to repeatedly turning the wheel during parking, and no recall was made.
After additional problems were reported in 2004, Toyota said, it carried out another investigation and decided to conduct a recall.
The model affected, totalling 1.2 million vehicles, was sold abroad including in North America and Europe, and a recall was carried out in September 2005, according to Toyota.
Eighteen cases of problems were reported from overseas, but there were no accidents or injuries, it said.
A Toyota official, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted police as saying reports about problems began in 1992, and company officials are accused of being aware of them as early as 1995 or 1996.
Toyota has enjoyed booming sales in recent years and is growing so rapidly that some analysts expect it to overtake General Motors Corp. of the U.S. as the world's biggest automaker.
But Toyota's reputation for impeccable quality has suffered lately because of increasing recalls, raising doubts whether the automaker can continue to maintain quality standards as it embarks on the next step of global expansion.
A massive scandal in Japan involving recall cover-ups took a huge toll on Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which acknowledged in 2000 it had hidden auto defects from authorities for more than two decades.
Mitsubishi has since announced a spate of recalls since then, and disclosed in 2004 it had failed to come clean in 2000 and there were other concealed defects, some linked to fatal accidents.