Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $10.9 million in damages for the high-speed crash in St. Paul that cost the lives of three people and sent another man to prison, a federal jury decided Tuesday.
Jurors in the Toyota liability trial found the world’s largest auto company 60 percent responsible for a 2006 crash that also sent a St. Paul man to prison for 2½ years.
They found Koua Fong Lee, driver of the 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into a stopped car at the top of an Interstate 94 exit, 40 percent responsible.
“No amount of money will bring my life back. My life is not the same anymore,” Lee said after the verdict.
Toyota declined to comment about a possible appeal, but said in a statement that the company would “carefully consider our legal options going forward.”
Toyota has faced hundreds of lawsuits over the issue of unintended acceleration, most of which have been resolved with settlements, said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts company.
Toyota was ordered to pay $10.94 million to the crash victims and their families for bodily harm and emotional stress. Lee’s award will be reduced by 40 percent, in accordance with the verdict.
The six-woman, six-man jury said a design defect in the Camry’s accelerator played a significant role in its rear-end collision with a 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera, which was stopped at a light at Snelling Avenue at the end of the exit.
Jurors deliberated for four days, starting Wednesday, in a lawsuit brought by the families of people in both cars.
Lee and his four family members, who were passengers in the Camry, will get $1.69 million.
Javis Trice-Adams Sr. and his son, Javis Jr., 9, died in the crash, and his daughter, Devyn Bolton, 6, died more than a year later.
Bridgette and Carolyn Trice, Bolton’s mother and grandmother, along with family members who were passengers in the Ciera, will receive $9.25 million.
Quincy Adams, the little girl’s grandfather, suffered head and back injuries; Jassmine Adams, Trice-Adams Sr.’s daughter, suffered a leg injury that will require more operations.
Lee, 37, was emotional at a news conference on the snowy federal courthouse plaza in Minneapolis Tuesday afternoon.
“At the time, I did everything to stop my car, but my car did not stop and cost many lives and many people were injured,” Lee said. “Also my life and my family is not the same anymore. So they [Toyota] are responsible for that.
Terrell Adams, a cousin of the deceased driver, called the settlement “huge,” adding, “but it doesn’t bring back our families.”
Jurors declined to talk to reporters as they left the courthouse.
They had sent U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery a note on Monday saying that they could not reach a unanimous verdict, but she told them to continue to deliberate.
The verdict followed a three-week trial and more than three years of preparation.
“Toyota … may have been just 60 percent responsible, but it was a clear finding there was a defect,” said Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law. “Eleven million dollars strikes me as a very, very significant verdict.”
“This journey has been long,” said Lee’s attorney, Bob Hilliard. “It’s been biblical in the amount of pain that all families have suffered. We sat through four weeks of trial where Toyota did nothing but blame Mr. Lee and claim that their Toyota was not defective. The jury heard the evidence and determined that was not true — that this 1996 Toyota Camry has a defect. And that means other 1996 Toyota Camrys have defects, and that’s a bigger issue that needs to be addressed another day.
“But at least today the Lees, especially Mr. Koua Fong Lee, has been told that this accident that has caused him so much suffering was primarily the responsibility of Toyota.”
“We sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles, including the Trice, Adams and Lee families,” the carmaker said in a statement. “While we respect the jury’s decision, we believe the evidence clearly demonstrated that Mr. Lee’s 1996 Camry was not the cause of this unfortunate accident.”
Lee testified that the car accelerated as he was exiting Interstate 94, and when he desperately pumped the brakes, the car did not slow down. His attorney, Bob Hilliard, argued that when the brakes were repeatedly pumped, they lost their vacuum and no longer worked.
The car continued to gather speed as the ramp merged with Concordia Avenue, he said, and crashed into the Ciera waiting at the stoplight at Snelling and Concordia.
Toyota’s attorneys said Lee accidentally hit the gas pedal, not the brakes, and that the Camry accelerator had no defects.
Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2008. A massive recall of newer Toyota models because of problems with sudden acceleration, starting in the fall of 2009, prompted attorneys to reopen Lee’s case. Ramsey County prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2010. The 1996 Camry was not among the vehicles recalled.
Lee and four family members who were passengers in the Camry joined with family members from the Oldsmobile in a suit against Toyota.
Jurors listened to lengthy testimony on how the accelerator system operated and heard from experts on both sides who conducted tests and drew opposite conclusions as to whether Toyota or Lee was responsible for the crash.
Toyota’s attorneys said their tests showed no problem of sticking accelerators or problems with the brakes.
Cooper Ashley, a Minneapolis attorney who handles product liability cases, said the trial was being watched closely by lawyers nationally.
Hilliard, Lee’s attorney, surprised Toyota by centering his closing arguments around his contention that each time Lee tapped the gas pedal, the accelerator stuck at higher speeds.
Hilliard based his argument on the testimony of John Stilson, an auto and safety consultant, who testified for Lee.
Toyota attorneys heard Stilson say the accelerator got stuck, but never appeared to grasp that Hilliard was saying it got stuck at higher and higher speeds.
Hilliard said Tuesday that once he realized Toyota attorneys did not pick up on that, he decided not to make it an issue until closing arguments, where he spoke last.
As a result, Toyota never challenged Stilson’s theory. “The strategy worked,” said Hilliard, smiling, on Tuesday.
Staff writer M.L. Smith contributed to this report.