In a major defeat for the Toyota Motor Co., U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled Monday that a jury had reached a reasonable conclusion that an accelerator defect was the key factor in a fatal car crash in St. Paul in 2006 and the auto company was not entitled to a new trial.
"The court is convinced the jury discharged their duties diligently and with care," Montgomery wrote. "The verdict did not result in a miscarriage of justice warranting a new trial."
The 67-page decision rejected a slew of Toyota's arguments and affirmed most of the $11 million that the jury awarded the plaintiffs. The judge also added interest that drives the verdict amount past $13 million.
The suit was brought by Koua Fong Lee, driver of a 1996 Toyota Camry, and his family, and by the family of a 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera. Lee's Camry crashed into the Ciera on June 10, 2006, after he exited eastbound Interstate 94 at the Snelling Avenue exit.
A father, Javis Trice-Adams, the driver, and his son, Javis Adams, Jr., who were in the Ciera, died in the crash. Devyn Bolton, a 6-year-old girl also in the Ciera, was paralyzed and died 16 months later.
Two others in the Ciera, Jassmine Adams, and Quincy Ray Adams, were seriously injured.
Lee's Texas attorney, Bob Hilliard, successfully argued that the accelerator was defective and continued to stick at higher speeds, even as Lee tried to apply the brakes.
Hilliard praised Montgomery, saying she "listened to all of Toyota's objections and complaints and found them without merit." He called it "a big victory for the Lees, a big victory for the other plaintiffs as well [and] justice found a way to prevail."
While an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely, Toyota did not address that in a statement Monday. "We sympathize with the families affected by this unfortunate accident in 2006," it said.
"However, we do not believe the jury's verdict is supported by the testimony from plaintiffs' expert and other incident witnesses and we will carefully consider our options moving forward. In our view, the evidence demonstrated that Mr. Lee's 1996 Camry was well-designed and not the cause of this crash."
The Ramsey County attorney originally blamed Lee for the accident, despite his assertion the brakes failed. He was charged and convicted of seven counts of vehicular homicide and injury and sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison.
Lee was imprisoned for two years but was released after Hilliard successfully argued that the accident could be blamed on "unintended acceleration" similar to the models of other Camry's that Toyota had recalled. (The 1996 Camry was not recalled.) Lee was not retried, and he joined the family of the Ciera victims in suing Toyota.
Contrary to Toyota's claims, John Stilson, an automobile expert and a key witness for the plaintiffs, provided sufficient evidence, that the jury deemed credible, that the defect was caused by a faulty accelerator system, Montgomery wrote.
One reason Toyota gave for seeking a new trial was that Hilliard advanced a new theory in his closing argument that the accelerator stuck at higher speeds each time Lee tapped on the gas pedal. But Montgomery wrote that his theory "is supported by evidence in the record."