In riveting testimony interrupted by tears and sobs, members of two families described Tuesday how their lives had been ravaged by a fatal automobile crash that they blame on an out-of-control Toyota Camry that struck an Oldsmobile Ciera in St. Paul in 2006.
Jurors in the federal trial heard testimony from Carolyn Trice, a grandmother who lost her son and two grandchildren who were in the Ciera. The accident upended relationships and shattered her family, she said.
"Our family is no family like it used to be," a visibly distraught Trice said.
No one died in the 1996 Camry that was driven by Koua Fong Lee, but his wife testified that she worried she'd lose them in another crash.
"There are many times that I want to walk away from my family, I want to walk away from my children, I want to walk away from my husband," said Pang Houa Moua, Lee's wife, dabbing her eyes with tissues. She said she loved them but she wondered every morning, "how are we going to get through today, or can I make it home today, and I feel I am going insane."
The emotional testimony caused U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery to call a brief recess in her Minneapolis federal courtroom so that Trice, who appeared close to breaking down, could gather herself.
Montgomery called another 10-minute recess after Moua ended her direct testimony and before cross-examination began.
The two families, one black, the other Hmong, whose lives dramatically intersected on June 10, 2006, have united in a single lawsuit against Toyota. The accident occurred at the top of the Snelling Avenue exit ramp from eastbound Interstate 94.
The families are seeking damages for pain and suffering and infliction of emotional distress, in addition to reimbursement for medical costs that exceed $1 million.
Their lawyers argue that the Camry had a built-in defect that caused two nylon pulleys to overheat and stick together, causing the vehicle to accelerate even as Lee desperately pumped the brakes in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the car.
The two families' lawyers are expected to rest their case on Wednesday after a counselor for Moua testifies, then attorneys for Toyota will begin their defense.
They are expected to present expert testimony to support their claim that the Camry's engine was soundly built, there was no defect and the crash occurred because Lee panicked and inadvertently pressed the accelerator instead of the brakes.
Earlier Tuesday, Nhia Koua Lee, Lee's father, testified he was seated behind his son in the Camry and heard him yelling in the Hmong language that the brakes were not working.
Then, he said, the vehicle crashed. "I was so scared," he said. He woke in the hospital, unable to move.
"I thought we were going to die," said Moua, who was also in the Toyota and recalled her husband shouting that the brakes had failed. When the car stopped, she said, her daughter was screaming and her father-in-law was unconscious.
She said her husband's demeanor has dramatically changed in the years since the accident. "He used to be very positive," she said. " … I can see he is not the same person anymore."
She said he wakes up crying after nightmares. While he has tried to be a strong support figure for the family, "I can see that he's not."
During cross-examination, Bard Borkon, a Toyota attorney, did not ask Moua about her personal concerns, but had her acknowledge that when she had driven the Camry before the accident, the car's brakes and accelerator worked properly.
Devyn Bolton, Trice's granddaughter, who died at age 7 from injuries suffered in the accident, was "a sweetheart" who was athletic and friendly, said Trice. "She would light up everybody's life."
Trice said the far-flung family used to gather regularly for holidays, but has not done so since the crash.
"Family get-togethers aren't family get-togethers," she said. "My grandkids, they don't like to stay at home. They don't like to be around each other."
Trial testimony is expected to wind up early next week.