MINNEAPOLIS – An attorney for a Minnesota man whose Toyota Camry rammed into another car in 2006, killing three people, said during closing arguments in federal court Wednesday that the car had a defect that caused the accelerator to stick.
The car driven by Koua Fong Lee was not defective, an attorney for Toyota Motor Corp. countered, suggesting that Lee mistook the gas pedal for the brake.
“You can’t explain this accident any other way than having no brake applied and the foot at or near wide open throttle,” Toyota attorney David Graves said, adding that if Lee had stepped on the brake hard, as he claimed to do, “this accident would not have happened.”
Lee’s Camry rear-ended an Oldsmobile at high speed on July 10, 2006, as he drove up an Interstate 94 off-ramp in St. Paul. He always insisted that he tried to stop, and that the car was at fault. He spent 2 1/2 years in prison before publicity over sudden acceleration in some Toyotas helped free him.
Lee, his family members, and others who were hurt or lost loved ones in the crash sued Toyota in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
Jurors got the case Wednesday after three weeks of testimony. They will have to decide whether the design of the 1996 Camry caused a defect that was unreasonably dangerous. If they find there was a defect, they must decide whether it caused the plaintiffs’ injuries.
Robert Hilliard, Lee’s attorney, said his client has post-traumatic stress disorder and asked the jury to consider Lee’s mental anguish as it weighs damages.
“I know the damage that occurred because of the guilt he carries,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard said testimony showed 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.
Lee testified during the trial that he is still haunted by the accident. He and his wife wept Wednesday after Hilliard’s closing arguments.
Toyota insisted Lee’s car was never subject to the recalls of later-model Toyotas and has alleged Lee was negligent.
Graves told jurors it was impossible for Lee’s car to speed up from around 55 mph to 75 mph at impact unless he had the throttle wide open. He pointed to tests that showed applying or pumping the brakes — as Lee testified he did — would have slowed the car.
“The brakes will win,” Graves said.
But Hilliard said two witnesses testified accelerators got stuck when they were driving 1996 Camrys, making it extremely hard to get their cars to stop.
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery told jurors they must disregard anything they might have read about Lee’s criminal case or his time in prison. Montgomery also told jurors to disregard information about recalls of other Toyotas.
The crash killed the driver of the Oldsmobile, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. His 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed and died in October 2007.
Trice-Adams’ daughter, Jassmine Adams, who was 12 at the time, was seriously injured, as was Trice-Adams’ father, Quincy Ray Adams. Those two and Devon Bolton’s mother, Bridgette Trice, are the other plaintiffs in the case.
Their attorneys said jurors should consider what was lost when assessing damages. Sniffles could be heard in the courtroom and several people, including at least one juror, wiped their eyes as Jassmine Adams’ attorney talked about the girl’s pain.
“It’s not fair that Jassmine had her childhood taken from her,” Anne Brockland said. “She only had one.”
Brockland added she wasn’t there to get sympathy, but rather: “I came to collect a debt.” She said: “Stand with me, and tell Toyota that this isn’t fair.”
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