By Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co <F.N> agreed to pay nearly $17.4 million in a settlement with U.S. auto safety regulators for failing to act quickly enough last year to recall vehicles with a defect that may cause unintended acceleration.
Ford and regulators reached the settlement "in order to avoid a protracted dispute and possible litigation," according to the settlement document dated June 28. Ford paid the settlement on July 26, according to the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The NHTSA had asked Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, to recall nearly 424,000 Ford Escape sport-utility vehicles with a defect that caused a stuck throttle when the accelerator pedal was fully or almost fully depressed. The Escapes were from the 2001 to 2004 model years.
During its investigation, Ford gave NHTSA information that supported "a tentative conclusion" that the recall may not have been timely, according to the settlement document. That could be a violation of U.S. law.
Ford denied that it broke the law. In a statement, Ford stressed that it was committed to responding quickly to potential vehicle issues. The settlement agreement does not release Ford from civil or criminal liabilities.
"While we are confident in our current processes for quickly identifying and addressing potential vehicle issues, Ford agreed to this settlement to avoid a lengthy dispute with the government," the company said in a statement.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the details of the Ford settlement, which is the largest settlement reached so far this year, according to NHTSA records.
In December 2012, Toyota Motor Corp agreed to pay almost $17.4 million in a settlement over NHTSA claims that it did not recall 2010 Lexus RS 350s fast enough over an issue of floor mat pedal entrapment.
Toyota has reached four separate settlements with NHTSA over the timing of its recalls. The payments exceeded $66 million from 2010 to 2013.
(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Leslie Adler)