By Amy Forliti
Jurors said the company was 60 percent to blame for the accident, which left three people dead and two seriously injured. But they also found that Koua Fong Lee, who has long insisted he tried to stop his car before it slammed into another vehicle, was 40 percent at fault.
Lee, his family members, the family of a girl who died, and two people who were seriously injured sued Toyota Motor Corp. in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The lawsuit alleged the crash was caused by an acceleration defect in Lee’s vehicle, but Toyota argued there was no design defect and that Lee was negligent.
“No amount of money … will bring my life back, my life is not the same anymore,” Lee said after the verdict, adding that he wanted the victims and their families to know: “I tried everything I could to stop my car.”
Toyota released a statement saying the company respects the jury’s decision but believes the evidence clearly showed the vehicle wasn’t the accident’s cause. The company said it will study the record and consider its legal options going forward.
After the 2006 wreck, Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to prison. He won a new trial after reports surfaced about sudden acceleration in some Toyotas, and questions were raised about the adequacy of his defense. Prosecutors opted against a retrial and he went free after spending 2½ years behind bars. He later sued.
The civil trial lasted three weeks, and jurors spent four full days deliberating.
Under Minnesota law, the way the jury allocated fault means Toyota is responsible for paying all damages, minus 40 percent of the amount awarded to Lee, said Lee’s attorney, Bob Hilliard.
During the trial, Hilliard, told jurors there was a defect in the car’s design. He said the Camry’s auto-drive assembly could stick, and when tapped or pushed while stuck, it could stick again at a higher speed. He also accused Toyota of never conducting reliability tests on nylon resin pulleys that could be damaged under heat and cause the throttle to stick.
“This is what makes the car go. This is what turns it into a torpedo, a missile, a deadly weapon,” Hilliard said during his closing argument.
Toyota said there was no defect in the design of the 1996 Camry. The company’s attorney, David Graves, suggested that Lee was an inexperienced driver and mistook the gas pedal for the brake.
Hilliard said the verdict means that other 1996 Toyota Camrys have defects, and perhaps the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to take a look at the car, while owners of those vehicles need to make sure they are safe.