In the largest civil penalty ever imposed by the agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has slapped Fiat Chrysler with a fine of up to $105 million for allegedly mishandling the recalls of more than 11 million potentially defective cars.
"We're sending very sharp signals to the industry that we're not playing around," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an exclusive interview with ABC News. "If you violate the law, if you don't do recalls properly, you're going to get called on it."
According to the NHTSA, Chrysler botched nearly two dozen recalls, including those involving Jeeps and Dodges with defective ignition switches, faulty axles, and electrical problems.
Some car owners weren't properly notified of their cars' defects, the government says -- and even when they were, the solutions Chrysler offered weren't always timely or effective.
The NHTSA says the company provided incomplete or inaccurate information, a potential violation of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
"This is a very good example of how not to do a recall. How not to do 23 recalls, in fact," Foxx said. "There's no way to defend what Fiat Chrysler was doing."
In addition to a $70 million cash penalty, the NHTSA is also fining Chrysler $20 million to address the recall issues, and warning that if the company doesn't perform, it could face another $15 million in fines -- bringing potential damages to $105 million.
There's "this feeling that maybe, you know, we can slip here and there and it's just the cost of doing business," Foxx said. "We're slapping folks pretty hard, and the idea is to get them in a position where they're complying with our rules."
Fiat Chrysler says the company "acknowledges the admissions" in the NHTSA's order and accepts the penalty "with renewed resolve to improve our handling of recalls and re-establish the trust our customers place in us."
As part of the record agreement, the car company has agreed to submit to increased oversight, and may even have to buy back more than half a million vehicles.
"If you don't follow the rules and you try to skirt the rules, we're going to find you," Foxx said. "And we're going to make you pay."
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