Toyota Seeks Dismissal of Minnesota Suit Over Imprisonment After Crash

February 2, 2011

Attorneys for Toyota Motor Corp. asked a federal judge on Monday to dismiss most of the claims filed by a Minnesota man who was incarcerated after a fatal crash involving a 1996 Camry, saying the automaker had no direct connection to events that put Koua Fong Lee in prison.

Lee, 33, was freed last year after serving more than 2 1/2 years. He sued Toyota, claiming he and family members suffered distress from either his incarceration or from the crash itself.

In documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court, attorneys for Toyota said many of Lee’s claims are without legal merit and should be dismissed. Among them, they said Lee can’t claim damages for his incarceration because any alleged wrongful conduct by Toyota could not have directly caused his trial and imprisonment.

“The reality, of course, is that many independent actors — including police, prosecutors, defense counsel and jurors — played pivotal causative roles in sending Koua Fong Lee to prison,” Toyota’s attorneys wrote.

Lee has maintained that he did everything he could to stop as his 1996 Camry sped up a freeway exit ramp in St. Paul and smashed into an Oldsmobile in June 2006, killing three people and severely injuring two others in the Oldsmobile. He was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.

His case was reopened after reports surfaced about sudden acceleration problems in certain Toyota models. The automaker ordered millions of recalls, and the government fined it $16.4 million for failing to quickly disclose what it knew about sticking accelerators.

At a hearing last August, defense investigators presented new evidence and testimony backing up Lee’s story, persuading a judge to vacate his conviction and grant him a new trial. Prosecutors dropped the case.

Those injured in the crash and family members of those who died sued Toyota in federal court, and Lee joined their case with his own claim for damages. Attorneys for the automaker filed documents Monday asking that many of the allegations be dismissed _ which would essentially pare down the lawsuits to just a handful of claims.

A judge will decide how the cases will go forward.

Among other things, attorneys for Toyota said Monday that allegations of fraud should be dismissed, because evidence used to support those claims pertains to vehicles made and sold after the 1996 Camry, which was not part of the recalls.

They also said Lee’s children who weren’t in the vehicle during the crash can’t claim emotional distress because they weren’t within the “zone of danger;” and Lee can’t claim damages for injuries unless there are physical manifestations.

Lee’s lawsuit alleges that he required psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of both the accident and his imprisonment. It says he now has trouble sleeping and requires sleeping medication.

Toyota released a statement saying it sympathizes with the families affected, but that the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit. The company said the 1996 Camry has an excellent 15-year safety record.

“Additionally, Mr. Lee’s unfortunate incarceration did not occur because of anything done by Toyota, and it defies both common sense and the law to hold Toyota responsible,” the company said.

Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits around the country over allegations of sudden acceleration problems.

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