The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will seek the maximum civil penalty of $16.375 million against Toyota Motor Corporation for failing to notify the agency about the “sticky pedal” defect in its cars, United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced.

Noting that Toyota knew of the “dangerous” defect and the potential risk to consumers for at least four months prior to revealing this knowledge, an NHTSA release said that the penalty being sought against Toyota would be the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an auto manufacturer by NHTSA.

Manufacturers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists.

“We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations,” Mr. LaHood said. “Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws.”

The NHTSA statement said that the agency learned, through documents obtained from Toyota, that the company knew of the sticky pedal defect since at least September 29, 2009.

That day, Toyota issued repair procedures to their distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticky accelerator pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM, and sudden vehicle acceleration, the NHTSA said. The documents also show that Toyota was aware that consumers in the U.S. were experiencing the same problems.