In an 11th-hour bombshell in the federal case against Toyota Motor Co. on Wednesday, the attorney for the driver suing the carmaker unveiled his theory for what caused a 2006 fatal crash.
Toyota’s attorneys appeared to be caught off guard. Since the car company delivered its closing arguments first, it had no chance to rebut.
Jury deliberations began Wednesday afternoon and will resume Thursday.
Driver Koua Fong Lee lost control of his 1996 Camry, said his attorney Bob Hilliard, because each time he tapped the gas pedal on the long exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue, the car accelerated.
Lee’s Camry got stuck at higher and higher speeds, Hilliard said, so when Lee pumped the brakes he was unable to stop and he rear-ended an Oldsmobile Ciera stopped at a red light. The driver of the Oldsmobile and his 9-year-old son were killed instantly. The driver’s 6-year-old daughter was badly injured and died a year later.
Hilliard based his case on the testimony of his automotive consultant, John Stilson, who spoke only briefly during the trial about the scenario laid out by Hilliard in his summation. If the system is stuck and the pedal is pushed further, “it will keep binding,” Stilson testified, demonstrating a model of the accelerator device to jurors. “If you push further, it will stay there.”
Nylon pulleys attached to the accelerator overheated because of where they sat near the engine, Stilson said in court, and the heat caused them to bind.
None of Toyota’s witnesses spoke to the gas-pedal issue as described by Hilliard during the three-week trial in Minneapolis.
Instead, they argued that if in fact the accelerator became stuck, it stayed at that level and tests showed that applying the brakes would override the accelerator, rapidly slowing the Camry.
“It would slow down the vehicle,” said Lee Carr, president of Carr Engineering, in testimony on Tuesday.
In attorney David Graves’ closing argument for Toyota, he said that Stilson never explained how the Camry got to full throttle.
Asked after the trial was adjourned Wednesday why he held back his key points until closing arguments, Hilliard said, “I’m not responsible for spoon-feeding Toyota on how to defend its case. It’s their responsibility to pay attention to how the evidence is entered, and listen to the witnesses.”
Toyota’s attorneys appeared upset by Hilliard’s closing. Graves, who gave the closing argument for Toyota, rose several times to raise objections, saying Hilliard was misrepresenting testimony, including Hilliard’s interpretation of a document. A Toyota spokesman said attorneys would have no comment on Hilliard’s closing argument.
What happened at the Toyota trial was unusual, said Cooper Ashley, a Minneapolis attorney who handles product liability cases.
“It’s rare that you have some primary theory of liability or defense theory, and get through an entire trial without somebody from the opposing counsel taking a shot at it,” Ashley said.
It is also unclear whether the jurors, who never focused on that aspect before, will embrace it, he said.
“It’s a risk that they may think that it should have been developed more fully during the trial,” he said. “The positive is you have a key piece of evidence that goes unrebutted by the defense.”
Hilliard buttressed his case by citing three other drivers who testified during the trial that they had experienced unexplained acceleration.
Hilliard argued that Toyota spent millions to make the case that Lee was at fault, while drivers for his side were paid nothing to testify.
Graves said in his closing argument that Toyota “is a corporate citizen and spent money” to defend itself. “It’s not cheap to run these tests,” he said.
Graves said Stilson had run four tests showing that the accelerator pulleys got stuck, but he insisted that Stilson ran the tests improperly. In the one test that Stilson conducted correctly, Graves said, the pulleys did not stick.
“There is no evidence that this was a defective design,” said Graves. He noted that the previous owner of Lee’s Camry testified that he drove the vehicle for years without any problems.
He also said Lee hit the gas instead of the brakes, and he highlighted Lee’s testimony at his 2007 criminal trial, where Lee said that he drove a truck and that driving the Camry was different.
“When I drive the truck and go to the Camry, I have to look down and see where the gas and brake is, so I can get used to it,” Lee testified.
Lee, convicted of criminal vehicular homicide, faced an eight-year sentence, and spent more than two years in prison before his attorneys gathered evidence of other 1996 Camrys that had unintended acceleration. Susan Gaertner, then the Ramsey County attorney, decided to not hold a new trial, but instead let Lee go free.
In seeking damages, the jury was instructed by U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery on Wednesday not to take the conviction or prison sentence into account if it decides to award damages, because Toyota was not involved in the criminal case and was not responsible for Lee going to prison.
Also in closing arguments, attorneys Bill Markovits and Anne Brockland, representing members of the families and people who were inside the Oldsmobile, made emotional pleas to the jury that they should be awarded damages to be paid by Toyota.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224