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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 4, 2015

Jury orders Toyota to pay $11.4 million in unintended acceleration suit

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

Following 4 days of deliberation, a federal jury in Minnesota on February 3 determined that Toyota Motor Corporation must pay $11,440,000 to the victims of a 2006 automobile crash that resulted in 3 fatalities. The driver of a 1996 Toyota Camry claimed that the car suddenly accelerated out of his control, crashing into another vehicle, instantly killing two of the second vehicle’s occupants. The driver, who was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the crash, served 2 1/2 years of an 8 year sentence before his conviction was vacated based on evidence that the Camry was defective, according to a news release issued by the driver's law firm, Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales L.L.P. (Trice v. Toyota Motor Corp., February 3, 2015, Civil Case Nos. 10-2804, 10-2802, and 10-2805).

Background. Koua Fong Lee was driving home from a church function on June 10, 2006, with his pregnant wife, Panghoua, his young daughter, Jemee, his brother, Nong, and his father, Nhia, when his car begin to accelerate on its own. The engine, racing, “overpowered the braking system’s ability to stop it,” the news release said. Lee tried to maneuver the vehicle around cars stopped at an approaching traffic light, but he could not and crashed into an Oldsmobile Ciera, instantly killing two people and rendering a six-year-old girl quadriplegic. The girl died the following year. While Lee and his family were not seriously injured, two other passengers in the Oldsmobile sustained serious injuries.

The news release explains that although there were no drugs or alcohol involved, the accident occurred on a clear afternoon, and Lee had consistently maintained that something went wrong suddenly in the Camry, a jury convicted Lee of criminally negligent homicide and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison. At the time of the trial, not much was known about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and Lee’s criminal attorney did not present evidence on the issue. Lee served two and a half years of his eight-year sentence before evidence of Toyota vehicles’ acceleration issues were presented at a hearing to overturn his conviction. The same judge who sentenced Lee ordered his conviction vacated and granted his immediate release. The prosecutor declined to re-charge Lee.

Suit. Following his release, Lee filed suit against Toyota, joined by his wife, daughter, brother, and father. Also in the lawsuit was Quincy Adams, the Oldsmobile front seat passenger who was severely injured, Jassmine Adams, the Oldsmobile back seat passenger who also was severely injured, and Bridgette Trice on behalf of the Estate of Devyn Bolton, the girl who was in the middle back seat of the Oldsmobile, rendered a quadriplegic by the accident, and who died 18 months later. American Family Mutual Insurance Company was also a party in the suit as the subrogee of Koua Lee. The complaint against Toyota alleged that the Camry was unreasonably dangerous and asserted claims for design and manufacturing defects and failure-to-warn, sounding in both strict liability and negligence, as well as claims for breach of warranties.

According to the firm’s news release, expert testimony was presented at trial to show that the accelerator on Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry suddenly and unexpectedly stuck in the near wide-open position, causing the car to accelerate. In addition, testimony from 3 witnesses—a doctor, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who served in Kuwait, and a former CFO of a college university—who all had experienced similar acceleration events in their 1996 Toyota Camrys were presented.

Jury verdict. The jury rendered a verdict totaling $11,440,000. The jury found that: Toyota’s design of the 1996 Camry resulted in a defective product that was unreasonably dangerous to the plaintiffs in the case; Toyota’s design of the 1996 Camry was a direct cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries; Koua Fong Lee was negligent in his operation of the Camry; and Koua Fong Lee’s negligence was a direct cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries. In finding that Toyota and Lee shared liability for the plaintiffs’ injuries, the jury determined that 60 percent of the fault was attributable to Toyota Motor Corp. and 40 percent was attributable to Koua Fong Lee.

As for damages, the jury concluded that Toyota should pay the following damages as fair and adequate compensation, without considering the allocation of fault between Lee and Toyota:

  • Jassmine Adams—$2 million in past damages for bodily harm and emotional distress, and $2 million for future damages for bodily harm and emotional distress;

  • Quincy Adams—$750,000 for past damages for bodily harm and emotional distress and $500,000 for future damages for bodily harm and emotional distress;

  • Koua Fong Lee—$500,000 for past damages for bodily harm and emotional distress, and $750,000 for future damages for bodily harm and emotional distress;

  • Panghoua Moua (Lee’s wife)—$250,000 for past damages for bodily harm and emotional distress, and $500,000 for future damages for bodily harm and emotional distress;

  • Jemee Lee, the breakdown was $50,000 for past damages, and $100,000 for future damages;

  • Nhia Koua Lee (Lee’s father)—$5,000 for past damages, and $10,000 for future damages;

  • Nong Lee (Lee’s brother)—the jury granted $10,000 for past damages, and $15,000 for future damages; and

  • the estate of Dovyn Bolton (next of kin, Bridgette Trice and Carolyn Trice)—$4 million in damages for the loss of counsel, guidance, aid, advice, comfort, assistance, companionship, and protection Devyn would have given her next of kin had she lived.

The case numbers are 10-2804, 10-2802, and 10-2805.

Attorneys: Christopher D Stock (Markovits, Stock & DeMarco, LLC), and Robert Hilliard and Austin Webber (Hilliard Munoz Gonzales LLP) for Bridgette Trice, Quincy Ray Adams and Jassmine D. Adams. David W Graves, Jr. (Bowman & Brooke LLP) for Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.

Companies: Toyota Motor Corp., Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Calty Design Research, Inc., Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews MotorVehiclesNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews MinnesotaNews

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