The attorney for Koua Fong Lee isn't sure how much three years of a man's life are worth, but he's setting his sights high.

Attorney Bob Hilliard wondered: How do you put a price tag on missing the first three years of your children's lives or on depriving your family of your support?

A lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on behalf of Lee and his family against Toyota Motor Corp. didn't specify a dollar figure. And Hilliard, an attorney from Corpus Christi, Texas, wouldn't speculate Tuesday about what he might ask a jury to award. But he noted that a verdict against Ford Motor Co. in 1987 came in at "over $100 million."

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lee; his wife, Panghoua Moua; their four children, and his brother and father, who were injured in a 2006 crash that ultimately killed three people and sent Lee to prison.

The suit alleges that Toyota knew about safety problems in its cars but failed to fix them or warn customers.

The suit was not unexpected but was a long time coming. A week ago, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan ruled that Lee could intervene in a lawsuit brought against the automaker by Bridgette Trice, whose 7-year-old daughter, Devyn Bolton, died as a result of the accident caused by Lee's 1996 Camry.

Celeste Migliore, national business and field communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in a statement: "We sympathize with all of the families affected by this incident, and we did not oppose Mr. Lee's plan to file his complaint against Toyota in this related federal court case. However, Toyota believes that any unintended acceleration allegations are without merit. The 1996 Camry involved in this case has never been subject to an acceleration-related recall and is designed to meet or exceed all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."

Lee, 33, of St. Paul, was driving his family home from their Minneapolis church on June 10, 2006, a sunny Saturday afternoon, and took the Snelling Avenue exit ramp off Interstate 94. Lee insisted from the start that he frantically pressed the brake pedal, but instead of slowing down, the car sped up. Experts estimated it was going up to 90 miles per hour when it slammed into an Oldsmobile Ciera. The driver, Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his son, Javis Adams Jr., 9, died at the scene. Devyn was left a quadriplegic and died about 18 months later.

Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. At that time, few people had heard about sudden unintended acceleration, one of a series of problems that caused a massive recall of newer Toyota models starting in the fall of 2009.

That recall prompted Lee's case to be reopened, and after listening to a dozen people testify that they, too, had experienced runaway engines or sudden acceleration in their Toyotas, a Ramsey County judge ruled last summer that he should get a new trial. Shortly thereafter, prosecutors dismissed the charges against him.

'Severe emotional distress'

The lawsuit said Lee required psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of both the accident and his imprisonment and that he now requires sleep medication. It said his wife and four children suffered "severe emotional distress."

It said that "well before the subject accident," Toyota was aware of sudden unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles because "hundreds of other similar incidents ... had been previously reported both to Toyota and to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."

"Despite this knowledge," the lawsuit said, "Toyota never made any significant changes to improve the acceleration and the electrical system." An easily installed brake override system that was available in other cars in the same model year could have fixed those problems, Hilliard said Tuesday.

"I have come to the conclusion that the older-model Toyotas will become more and more susceptible to sudden unintended acceleration as they age," Hilliard said. "Toyota makes their cars to last forever. They create a car that will last long enough for a defect to occur. Then they don't fix the defect.

"Seriously, what is the value of what happened to Koua?" Hilliard asked. "If Mr. Toyoda [Toyota president Akio Toyoda] says OK, I'll come to the United States and I'll submit myself to jail for three years, we'll call it even."

Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992