Toyota's $1.2B penalty in criminal case offers possible glimpse into future of General Motors

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008, file photo, the Chevy Cobalt moves on the assembly line at the Lordstown Assembly Plant Thursday Aug. 21, 2008. in Lordstown, Ohio. Toyota’s saga of recalls, investigations and lawsuits related to unintended acceleration foreshadows some of what General Motors faces as it resolves issues related to a faulty ignition switch linked to at least 12 deaths (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)

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"In other words, Toyota confronted a public-safety emergency as it if were a simple public-relations problem," Holder said Wednesday at a news conference.

Toyota says it has put reforms in place to make sure this doesn't happen again.

But statements like Holder's must have GM worried about damage to its brand image and a hit to its stock price.

The company has tried to portray itself as transparent, submitting to NHTSA two chronologies admitting mistakes. Its new CEO has apologized several times to families of those injured or killed in crashes. The company has also placed safety in the hands of a single executive and hired outside legal counsel to investigate its conduct.

Still, in just one day last week, GM's stock value fell 5 percent, reducing the total value of the company by $3.2 billion, according to Barclays analyst Brian Johnson.

Itay Micheli, an analyst for Citi Research, wrote that only about one percentage point of Toyota's market share slide came from the recall crisis. Toyota blames the drop on an artificially high market share in 2009 due to high gas prices that boosted sales of its fuel-efficient models.

"The GM situation is far from an easy call, but we think the risk of Toyota-like share losses would only come into play if the headline situation materially worsens," Micheli wrote.

GM's brands also aren't as strong as Toyota's were at the time of the recalls. Before bankruptcy, GM cars had a reputation for poor reliability, although the company has made great strides toward erasing that.

GM's recalls, at 1.6 million worldwide, are far smaller than Toyota's, so the cost to the company will be far less. GM said Wednesday it would take a $300 million charge this quarter for the small-car recall and several others.

Also, Toyota had to recall models that were on sale at the time. GM has tried to distance itself from the recalled cars, saying they were made years ago by the old GM, the one that went into bankruptcy protection.

Even with the settlement, the ordeal isn't over for Toyota, and it's just starting for GM. Both companies still face lawsuits over the recalls, and they will see bad publicity every time there's a verdict. GM, though, is not liable for legal claims from crashes that occurred before it left bankruptcy in July 2009. Such claims would go to a trust formed to settle claims against the pre-bankruptcy company.

However, lawyers are researching whether they can prove that GM knew about the ignition-switch problem during the bankruptcy but did not disclose it to the judge. In that case, the new GM might be liable for older claims.

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Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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