A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the verdict against the Toyota Motor Corp. in the case of a 2006 fatal crash in St. Paul.
The panel ruled unanimously in favor of Koua Fong Lee, the St. Paul man who said his Toyota Camry malfunctioned, leading to a crash that caused the deaths of three people and his imprisonment for vehicular homicide.
In a 2015 trial, a jury found Lee 40 percent at fault and Toyota 60 percent at fault for the collision and awarded Lee and other crash victims $11.4 million.
The judges unanimously ruled Friday that the evidence and testimony presented at trial gave a plausible explanation for Lee's contention that his 1996 Camry accelerated while he tried to apply the brakes as he exited eastbound Interstate 94 at the Snelling Avenue exit.
The Camry rear-ended a 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera, killing the Ciera's driver, Javis Trice-Adams, and his 6-year-old son, Javis Jr. Trice-Adams' father and daughter were severely injured, and his 6-year-old niece was paralyzed and died about a year later. Occupants of Lee's car were also injured.
Texas attorney Bob Hilliard, representing Lee in the trial in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, argued that pulleys in the accelerator control system overheated and stuck together, causing the unintended acceleration and collision.
Toyota appealed, saying Judge Ann Montgomery should not have allowed the testimony of three witnesses who said that their 1996 Toyota Camrys also accelerated, because their circumstances were different.
But the appeals court ruled that the witnesses' experiences were sufficiently similar to Lee's, and the plaintiffs' expert made a sufficiently valid case that Toyota had a design defect.
"The jury's verdict was not based on 'sheer speculation,' and instead is supported by reasonable inferences drawn from the plaintiffs' evidence," the court said in its 27-page opinion. The panel was composed of Judges James Loken and Diana Murphy of Minneapolis and Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Kelly wrote the decision.
Reached by phone Friday, Lee said: "I am very happy with the results. At the beginning Toyota had blamed me. I want people around the world to see and to know that I was pressing the brakes, not the gas."
On one issue, the appeals court said Montgomery erred in awarding prejudgment interest to the mother of Devyn Bolton, the girl who died later from her injuries. This is the amount of interest from the date of the crash to the day of the jury's verdict. Hilliard said he expects a reduction in the total award but does not know how much. He said the case will be remanded to Montgomery, who will make the determination.
Before the civil trial, Lee spent two years in prison after Ramsey County prosecuted him for the crash and a jury convicted him of criminal vehicular homicide. Hilliard won Lee's release after presenting evidence that Toyota Camrys had a history of sudden, unintended acceleration. County prosecutors decided to not retry the criminal case.
Hilliard said Friday that the appeals court decision was a vindication for Lee, who never wavered in his insistence that the brakes did not work.
Toyota issued a brief statement: "We sympathize with everyone affected by this unfortunate accident from 2006. While we respect the Eighth Circuit's decision, we continue to believe the evidence shows that Mr. Lee's 1996 Camry was well-designed and was not the cause of this accident."