Monday, March 22, 2010

Toyota shareholders sue over falling stock prices

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 Toyota 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 interviews to assure stockholders and the public that the accelerator problem was easily fixed or might be drivers' fault.

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Instead, the lawsuits contend, top executives have known for nearly a decade that faulty electronic throttle controls caused vehicles to sometimes careen out of control but covered it up to protect Toyota's reputation for safety — and its stock price. Toyota has not issued any recalls involving flaws in the throttles and has repeatedly denied they are the problem.

Damages could reach billions

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, but some investors say the recovery did not prevent them from 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 also have lost nearly 17 percent of their value since Jan. 21.

Toyota declined to comment because the cases are pending. It has repeatedly denied its electronic throttle controls are to blame for sudden acceleration.

In the lawsuits, the shareholders are asking a judge to certify a "class" of plaintiffs that would represent all Toyota shareholders in the U.S. who held company stock on specific dates. If Toyota is found liable, damages could run into the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

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