Toyota's US 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 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 press releases, conference calls with stock analysts and TV interviews 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 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 not issued any recalls involving flaws in the electronic throttles and has repeatedly denied they are the problem.
Shares rose from just over $US75 on October 5, the day of the floor mat recall, to above $US90 on January 21, when Toyota announced a recall over gas pedals it says can stick in certain conditions.
After that, the stock price fell, dropping 16 per cent as of early March. Shares on Thursday closed at $US79.34. Since the sticky pedal recall, Toyota's total market capitalisation has fallen 13 per cent to $US135.87 billion ($A147.6 billion).
Toyota declined comment because the cases are pending in court. Shareholders are asking a judge to certify a "class" of plaintiffs that would represent all Toyota shareholders in the US who held company stock on specific dates. The shareholder lawsuits are pending in federal court in California, the location of Toyota's North American headquarters.
In one lawsuit, Toyota stockholder Harry Stackhouse of Richboro, Pennsylvania, contends the company "misled investors by failing to disclose that there was a major design defect in Toyota's acceleration system, which could cause unintended acceleration".
Stackhouse said he bought 40 shares in late 2009 just as the accelerator problems became more widely known. Stackhouse and the other two filing suit - shareholders from Ohio and Tennessee - did not return calls seeking comment.
To win damages, the investors must be able to prove Toyota made misleading statements about an issue that would have a "material" effect on its bottom line, said James Cox, a Duke University law professor who specializes in corporate and securities law. And they must show Toyota had a duty to disclose the truthful information.
John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University, said there has to be strong evidence of fraud.
The automaker is also being sued by hundreds of Toyota owners seeking compensation for the lost value of their cars and trucks in proposed class-action lawsuits likely to top $US3 billion ($A3.26 billion) in possible damages. The company also faces a series of wrongful death and injury lawsuits from crashes linked to accelerator problems.A hearing is scheduled next week in San Diego on whether to consolidate the dozens of Toyota owners' class-action lawsuits before a single judge. The investors' cases are separate from that proceeding.