Post-trial wrangling in the Toyota case is heating up, with a lawyer’s claim that Toyota Motor Co. played “the race card” by suggesting that an $11 million jury verdict should be overturned because Koua Fong Lee was a Hmong refugee, not a U.S. citizen.
The federal court may have lacked jurisdiction to try the case because Lee may have been “stateless” when he filed suit in 2010, Toyota attorney Theodore Dorenkamp wrote U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery last week. Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into an Oldsmobile Ciera in 2006 in St. Paul, causing three deaths in the Ciera.
Bob Hilliard, Lee’s lawyer, shot back in a press statement, saying Toyota’s allegation that Lee lacked the right to file suit “is preposterous and shameful.”
He said Lee and his family were in the process of becoming naturalized citizens when Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison after a state court found him guilty of causing the accident. After Hilliard offered evidence that a mechanical defect, not Lee, was responsible for his Camry’s sudden acceleration, Lee was freed from prison. He obtained his citizenship “immediately,” says Hilliard. In a federal civil trial that ended in February, a jury found Toyota 60 percent at fault and Lee 40 percent.
“It’s amazingly ironic that a Japanese car company comes into the American court system and after losing a … verdict where the jury determined its 1996 Toyota Camry was dangerous and defective, decides to challenge the right of a U.S. citizen to have his day in court,” Hilliard said in a statement.
He said Toyota played “the race card,” which he called “desperate” and “despicable.”
In response, Toyota issued its own statement:
“It is unclear that the Lees’ legal team provided proof that federal court was the proper jurisdiction for this case and, as required, we notified the Court and the Lees’ counsel of this uncertainty. We are in the process of discussing the matter with the Lees’ attorneys, which we hope will clarify the jurisdictional facts.”