A defense attorney for the Toyota Motor Corp. hammered away Friday at Koua Fong Lee, seeking to show a federal jury that he had changed his account of an automobile crash since a 2007 criminal trial where he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide but exonerated 2½ years later.
Lee, 37, has joined forces with the families of three people who died as a result of the 2006 crash to sue the automaker for defective equipment on his Toyota Camry that he says led the car to accelerate at the Snelling off-ramp on eastbound Interstate 94, slamming into an Oldsmobile Ciera as he fruitlessly tried to apply the brakes.
Toyota claims Lee mistakenly put his foot on the accelerator, rather than the brakes, which led to the fatal accident.
Lee, who lives in St. Paul, testified Friday that he knew the difference between the accelerator and the brake pedals on the 1996 Toyota Camry that was involved in the crash and said it was similar to the pickup truck he normally drove.
He pointed out the different gas and brake pedals on the Camry to the jury in a model of the car’s front floor that was wheeled to the front of the courtroom.
But on cross-examination, Toyota attorney David Graves attempted to show that Lee may have confused the two pedals. He introduced testimony from the 2007 criminal trial where Lee said his truck and the Camry pedals were different.
“The difference is that the brake on the Camry is lower, and the brake on the truck is higher,” Lee testified under cross examination in 2007.
“And when you say ‘lower’ and ‘higher,’ are you referring to the distance from the floor?” the prosecutor asked.
“For the Camry,” Lee testified at the trial, “the seat’s closer, so it’s easier to reach. For the truck, it’s back so it’s a little bit harder to reach … The difference to me is that when I drive my truck and go to the Camry I have to look down and see where the gas and the brake is so I can get used to it.”
Pressed by Graves on how fast he was going on the off ramp just before the crash, Lee repeatedly said it depended on the speed of the car in front of him. U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery herself then put the question to him, and Lee said, “it could be 50 to 60 [miles per hour], it could be 60 or 70.”
Graves said to Lee that he had never said that before.
Earlier in direct testimony, elicited by his attorney Bob Hilliard, Lee said the crash, deaths and injuries, had left a permanent emotional scar.
Trembling as he spoke, and occasionally lifting a tissue to his face, he said, “I tried to rebuild my life, but it is very difficult to move on. I am very sad. I want to apologize to the other families” who had members killed or injured.
“Every day I think about that accident,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “Many lives lost. It is very sad to see the little girl. She had led a happy life. No more life because of the incident.”
It was unclear whether he was referring to Devyn Bolton, the 6-year-old who was riding in the Ciera and paralyzed in the accident and died 16 months later, or Jassmine Adams, Bolton’s 12-year-old cousin, who sustained a severe leg injury and still has physical difficulties.
Jassmine Adams testified Friday, crying several times, as she recalled napping in the back seat of the Ciera, then waking after it was struck by Lee’s Toyota. She said she saw her father, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., the driver, motionless in the front seat, as was her brother Javis Trice-Adams Jr., who was in the back seat. Both had died instantly.
“I tried to wake him up,” she said of her brother. “He wouldn’t respond.”
She said she called out to her father, “Daddy, come on, get up.”
Devyn Bolton had a bloodied head, and Jassmine was pinned inside the vehicle and she could see a bone in her leg.
Someone looked in the window and saw her. “Am I going to die?” she asked him, crying and trembling as she retold the story. He said no.
Her mother, Angela Block, testified that the personality of Jassmine, now 21, had changed as a result of the crash and she was now an angry person.
Also Friday, two drivers testified about their experiences of similar unintended acceleration in 1996 Toyota Camry cars, that the plaintiffs suggest will show that the problem with the vehicle was widespread. Toyota contends their examples are not comparable.
The first, Michael Frazier, a retired Providence College official, said that his 1996 Toyota Camry accelerated repeatedly in 2006 while driving the car on a trip through Boston after his daughter experienced a similar problem.
Ronald Neumeister, a Sun Country pilot currently stationed in Kuwait, came back to testify on Lee’s behalf. He described three incidents where his own 1996 Camry accelerated unexpectedly.
Under cross examination, Toyota attorney Bard Borkon tried to suggest that the Camry had not been properly serviced by Neumeister.
The first witness of the day was Dr. Michael McGonigal of Regions Hospital, who testified that expenses for Devyn Bolton’s hospitalization came to about $1 million.