By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday dismissed a criminal charge against Toyota Motor Corp after the Japanese automaker completed three years of monitoring under a $1.2 billion settlement in which it admitted to misleading the public about sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley in New York agreed to a U.S. Justice Department request to end the case stemming from Toyota's admission that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about the extent of sudden acceleration problems in 2009 and 2010.
Toyota had agreed to three years of oversight by an independent monitor that ended in August.
In bringing charges in March 2014, the Justice Department said that Toyota minimized problems, misled regulators and provided inaccurate information to Congress in the scandal linked to at least five deaths.
The $1.2 billion settlement was the largest penalty levied by the United States on an auto company until Volkswagen AG admitted to diesel emissions fraud earlier this year and paid $4.3 billion in fines.
Toyota spokesman Scott Vazin said on Thursday the company was pleased the court accepted the recommendation. "Over the past three years, we have worked hard in the spirit of continuous improvement to make Toyota a stronger company that serves its customers better," he said.
Pauley said in 2014 the case represented a "reprehensible picture of corporate misconduct," and expressed hope the government would ultimately hold the responsible decision-makers at Toyota accountable.
In his order on Thursday, Pauley said: "Regrettably, the payment of a $1.2 billion fine and the appointment of a monitor appear to have concluded the government’s investigation into this tragic episode."
Toyota made significant changes to its safety practices after the recall crisis that briefly forced it to halt sales of nearly half of its vehicles in 2010 and led to the company president, Akio Toyoda, appearing before Congress to apologize.
Toyota settled other related suits, including an agreement covering as many as 22 million current and former Toyota owners over sudden acceleration claims valued at as much as $1.63 billion. There are still individual civil claims pending in California.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)