MIAMI - Toyota shareholders incensed over a sudden drop in the Japanese automaker's stock price are heading to court with lawsuits claiming company executives deliberately misled investors and the public about the depth of accelerator problems in millions of its vehicles.
At least three proposed class-action lawsuits filed by Toyota investors say the company gave false initial assurances that the sudden acceleration problem was a simple matter of floor mats trapping gas pedals, helping prop up the stock price.
The shareholder cases are part of an avalanche of potentially costly lawsuits against Toyota Motor Corp. over the acceleration issue, including those filed by crash victims and their families and those brought by car owners contending their vehicles are worth far less because of the recalls.
The investor lawsuits say Toyota spread misleading information through news releases, conference calls with stock analysts and TV interviews to assure stockholders and the public that the accelerator problem was easily fixed or might be the driver's fault.
Instead, the lawsuits contend, top Toyota executives have known for nearly a decade that faulty electronic throttle controls caused vehicles to sometimes careen wildly out of control but covered it up to protect the company's reputation for safety - and its stock price. The company has repeatedly denied the electronic throttles are the problem.
U.S.-listed shares rose from just over $75 on Oct. 5, the day of the floor mat recall, to above $90 on Jan. 21, when Toyota announced another recall, over gas pedals it says can stick in certain conditions.
After that, the stock price fell, dropping 16 percent as of early March. Shares have since rebounded somewhat, closing Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange at $79.34, but some investors say the recovery did not prevent their losing potentially millions of dollars as the stock was dropping.
Since the sticky pedal recall in late January, Toyota's total U.S. market capitalization has fallen 13 percent to $135.87 billion. In trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Toyota shares have lost nearly 17 percent of their value since Jan. 21. That's wiped out about 2.27 trillion yen ($25.1 billion) of the company's market capitalization there.
If Toyota is found liable, damages could easily run into the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.
The shareholder lawsuits are pending in federal court in California, the location of Toyota's North American headquarters.