A man who spent 21/2 years in prison for a deadly 2006 car accident involving his Toyota before he was released amid reports of a sudden acceleration problem affecting the automaker’s cars told jurors Thursday in his lawsuit against Toyota that he is still haunted by the accident.
With his voice shaking, Koua Fong Lee testified that his heart races, his hands get cold and his body shakes whenever he thinks about the accident, in which his 1996 Camry slammed into the back of a family’s Oldsmobile at high speed, killing two people instantly, paralyzing a young girl who died 16 months later and permanently injuring two other people.
Lee, the leadoff witness in the lawsuit, has always maintained that his car accelerated on its own as he was exiting Interstate 94. He is among several plaintiffs seeking damages from Toyota Motor Corp. over the crash. He told jurors he feels “scared that if I think about this one day maybe I might die because of all these memories that I have to have here for the rest of my life.”
Lee’s attorney, Robert Hilliard, said during his opening statement that the crash was caused by a design defect involving a plastic pulley in the Camry’s mechanical accelerator control system that the Japanese automaker failed to identify. He said that flaw prevented Lee from stopping.
Toyota attorney Bard Borkon said the brakes and throttle system were working properly and that Lee’s car had gone 177,000 miles without any serious problems. He said experts will testify that there was no way the car could have accelerated to 75 mph if Lee had been pumping the brakes as he claimed, even with the throttle wide open.
Borkon said Lee must have mistakenly hit the gas instead of the brakes and panicked. He said Lee, a Hmong immigrant who settled in St. Paul in 2004 after living most of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand, was an inexperienced driver and usually drove a Chevrolet pickup truck rather than the Camry, which was mostly his wife’s car.
“That is the only thing that explains this tragedy, given the distances and speed involved,” Borkon said.
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery told the jury to disregard anything they might know about Lee’s criminal case. He was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and made headlines when he won a new trial after reports started surfacing of sudden acceleration in Toyota models that had electronic throttles, though a major reason was the ineffective defense that his original lawyer put up. Prosecutors opted against a retrial, and the same judge who sent him to prison ruled in December that he was eligible to collect under a new state law that compensates the wrongly imprisoned.
Montgomery also told jurors that Lee’s 1996 Camry LE V6 was not among the Toyota models that were involved in mass recalls because of the sudden acceleration issue.
“You should not consider the sudden acceleration recalls for any reason in this case,” the judge said.
The case instead is focusing on whether Lee’s car was defective, the severe or fatal injuries suffered by people in the Oldsmobile and the lesser injuries suffered by Lee and his family. Killed instantly were the Oldsmobile driver, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., who are not subjects of this lawsuit. His 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, who was paralyzed, died 16 months later. Two other passengers in Trice-Adams’ car, his father Quincy Adams and daughter Jassmine Adams, suffered permanent injuries but survived and will testify.
Bill Markovits, an attorney for Devyn’s mother and Quincy Adams, said Adams suffered a traumatic brain injury that still affects him.
Jassmine Adams’ attorney, Anne Brockland, told the jury of the fear and pain she endured while trapped in the back seat, and of her long road back from a hip injury that will require further surgery.
Hilliard acknowledged that the physical injuries suffered by Lee’s family weren’t so serious. But he said Lee still suffers from “the prison inside his mind” from knowing he was driving the car that caused such a devastating crash.
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