Ford Motor Co. has paid the top penalty of $17.35 million to settle government allegations that the company was slow to recall nearly a half-million SUVs last year.
The fine announced Thursday is linked to the July 2012 recall of nearly 485,000 Ford Escape SUVs from the 2001 to 2004 model years. The SUVs, equipped with 3-liter V-6 engines, were recalled to fix sticking gas pedals that could cause crashes. It's the maximum fine safety regulators are allowed to levy against an automaker.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contends that Ford knew about the problem in May 2011 but failed to take action until the agency began investigating the Escapes in July 2012. The probe was started after a teenage Arizona girl died in an Escape crash in January 2012.
Regulators felt they had a case that Ford violated the law by delaying the recalls, although Ford denied any violations, according to a June 28 settlement agreement posted online by NHTSA.
It's the third time in less than a year that an automaker has paid a fine or reached a settlement with NHTSA to sidestep lengthy public battles with the agency.
Ford agreed to the recall a week after it was asked for information about the Escapes. Eventually Ford turned over the information, and the NHTSA found evidence that Ford knew about the problem more than a year earlier.
At the time of the recall, NHTSA said it had 68 complaints about the Escape problem, including 13 crashes, nine injuries and the death in Arizona.
Ford said in a statement that it agreed in June to pay the fine to avoid a protracted dispute with NHTSA. A spokeswoman said Ford faced a complex situation with a low number of complaints. The problem was compounded by improper repairs made to the vehicles, she said. "We are absolutely committed to addressing potential vehicle issues and responding quickly for our customers," she said