Emotions were raw in a federal courtroom Thursday as a lawsuit against Toyota over a 2006 crash that caused the deaths of three people and the imprisonment of a St. Paul man went to trial.
"My car would not stop," testified Koua Fong Lee in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. His voice choking, he described how his 1996 Toyota Camry slammed into another car, and a few minutes later, seeing lifeless people being pulled from the other vehicle and sheets put over them.
"I think of the white sheets and the bodies," he said. "It makes my heart break and I am scared. … "
The suit against Toyota claims the brakes on Lee's 1996 car failed and the car accelerated, crashing into the rear of the victims' Oldsmobile Ciera. Lee spent more than 2½ years in prison after being convicted of criminal vehicular homicide.
Driver error, not Toyota, was responsible for the crash, the automaker's attorney said.
"This was a tragedy," Bard Borkon said in his opening statement. "There is a lot of suffering that these families had to endure."
But, he said, "the evidence is going to show that this crash is not Toyota's fault."
In his testimony, Lee, 37, described returning home from church to drop off family members. He pulled off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue and saw cars ahead of him at the top of the exit ramp.
"I took my foot off the gas and pushed the brakes and nothing happened," he said. "Brakes not working," he said he told his wife, Panghoua Moua. "Brakes not working."
At the noon recess, Jassmine Adams, 21, a survivor of the crash who sustained multiple fractures, burst into tears after her attorney, Anne Brockland, completed her opening statements. Brockland told the jury how Adams, then 12, awoke in the back seat of her father's 1995 Oldsmobile after it was struck by Lee's Toyota.
Adams saw her brother slumped over dead and her father smashed against the steering wheel, said Brockland. A cousin Devyn, who died later, was unresponsive.
Adams will have a lifelong imprint of that memory, said Brockland. After the jury was excused, Brockland hugged Adams and cried herself.
Lee's attorney, Bob Hilliard, said that tests of Lee's Camry showed that the brakes were applied. He said expert testimony will show that two plastic resin pulleys under the hood that operate the accelerator overheated and got stuck.
Arguing for Toyota, Borkon said the car Lee drove worked perfectly for 177,000 miles. He said that when Lee took the off-ramp he was "startled" by many cars in front of him and stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake.
He said the brakes worked fine when tested two days after the accident.
No prison or recalls
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery instructed jurors not to consider Lee's conviction or incarceration in weighing the issues in the case, nor should they consider the 2010 decision by the Ramsey County attorney to drop charges, setting Lee free.
Jurors also are not to consider Toyota's various recalls in connection with sudden acceleration of vehicles, Montgomery said.
Two other people who claim they experienced "substantially similar unintended acceleration" in their Toyotas are expected to testify Friday.
The trial may last four weeks. A jury of eight men and six women was chosen on Wednesday. Two will become alternates when deliberations begin.
The outcome of the trial could have major national impact.
"It's a big deal," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, and the co-author of a book on sudden vehicle acceleration.
"It's going right at the issue of blaming the driver," said Ditlow. A victory for Lee and the other plaintiffs, he said, would be "a huge blow to Toyota."
Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, his father and brother home from their Minneapolis church on June 10, 2006, when he exited Interstate 94. As his Camry accelerated, he sideswiped one car before hitting the Ciera.
Experts said Lee's car was traveling between 76 and 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams' niece Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed and died 16 months later.
The three who died were "complete innocents," said attorney Bill Markovits, who is representing the Trice-Adams family. "We ask you to hold Toyota fully liable," he said.
Lee was sentenced in January 2008 to eight years in prison. After Toyota conducted a massive recall, due partly to sudden acceleration, Lee's attorneys sought a new trial. Although Lee's Camry was not among the models recalled, his attorneys said they would produce 11 drivers who said they had experienced sudden acceleration in older model Toyotas. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner dismissed the charges against Lee instead, setting him free.
No damages for prison
Lee joined the families of the other victims in the lawsuit. He and his family members are seeking damages for "severe emotional distress" because of the crash.
In 2011, Judge Montgomery said Lee could not seek damages for his incarceration.
She ruled there were other factors that led to his conviction, including "many independent actions" and decisions by the Ramsey County attorney, Lee's criminal defense attorney, the jury and the sentencing judge among others.
"All these factors combined to result in Lee's wrongful conviction and incarceration," she wrote, so Toyota's role could not be ruled "a substantial factor."
Starting in 2009, Toyota began recalling vehicles for sudden unintended acceleration, and the numbers have surpassed 8 million. It has paid out at least $34 million in federal fines and faced hundreds of claims and lawsuits. Toyota last March agreed to pay a $1.2 billion penalty in settling a criminal investigation by the Justice Department in connection with sudden acceleration.
Toyota indicated in court documents that it will show that none of the incidents to be presented by Lee and the other plaintiffs are substantially similar to the 2006 crash.