U.S. auto safety regulators have "tentatively concluded" that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV did not adequately remedy safety defects in a timely manner, notify car owners of recalls or keep federal officials informed about ongoing issues, according to an official document seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
The document, an official draft of a notice to be published in the Federal Register, contains the most strongly worded language to date by regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and expands from 20 to 22 the number of recalls that NHTSA intends to scrutinize at a public hearing on July 2.
The automaker could face more than $700 million in fines and be required to buy back or replace vehicles if regulators find that it failed in its legal recall obligations.
NHTSA and FCA did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.
All told, the recalls involve more than 11 million cars and trucks, including 1.5 million Jeep Liberty and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs recalled in June 2013 to reduce the risk of fire in rear-end collisions. By April 30, 2015, NHTSA said FCA had completed repairs on only 320,000 of the vehicles, or 21 percent.
The notice said NHTSA found that FCA failed to notify owners about defects in two previously unreported cases. In one case, the agency said, FCA "did not notify owners for over five months" about the risk that air bag inflators could rupture.
The public hearing, and an accompanying special order issued to the automaker on May 18, are part of an escalating regulatory battle between FCA and the Obama administration.
FCA said it would cooperate, but added in a June 4 response to NHTSA's special order that it saw no reason to hold a public hearing.
The latest notice provided additional details to support NHTSA's contention that FCA did not meet those obligations.
The FCA recalls earmarked for scrutiny involve a range of Chrysler models that date back to 1993, including Dodge Ram pick-ups, and Chrysler Town and Country minivans.
As one example of what it said was FCA's failure to remedy vehicle defects in a reasonable time, NHTSA cited a series of three recalls from 2013, involving a million Dodge Ram trucks with potentially defective tie rods. The agency said FCA could not produce enough repair parts and that some of the replacement parts failed after repairs were made.
"At this time, a year and a half after the recall notices were filed, many of the vehicle remain unrepaired," NHTSA said.