BUSINESS

Jury: Design flaw in 1996 Camry partly to blame for fatal wreck, Toyota must pay victims $11M

02/03/2015 11:22 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT
MINNEAPOLIS - A federal jury decided on Tuesday that the design of the 1996 Toyota Camry had a dangerous defect that was partly to blame for a fatal 2006 crash, and the automaker must pay nearly $11 million to victims.

Jurors said the company was 60 per cent to blame for the accident, which left three people dead and two seriously injured. But they also found that Koua Fong Lee, who has long insisted he tried to stop his car before it slammed into another vehicle, was 40 per cent at fault.

Lee, his family members, the family of a girl who died, and two people who were seriously injured sued Toyota Motor Corp. in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The lawsuit alleged the crash was caused by an acceleration defect in Lee's vehicle, but Toyota argued there was no design defect and that Lee was negligent.

"No amount of money ... will bring my life back, my life is not the same anymore," Lee said after the verdict, adding that he wanted the victims and their families to know: "I tried everything I could to stop my car."

Toyota released a statement saying the company respects the jury's decision but believes the evidence clearly showed the vehicle wasn't the accident's cause. The company said it will study the record and consider its legal options going forward.

After the 2006 wreck, Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to prison. He won a new trial after reports surfaced about sudden acceleration in some Toyotas, and questions were raised about the adequacy of his defence. Prosecutors opted against a retrial and he went free after spending 2 1/2 years behind bars. He later sued.

The civil trial lasted three weeks, and jurors spent four full days deliberating.

Under Minnesota law, the way the jury allocated fault means Toyota is responsible for paying all damages, minus 40 per cent of the amount awarded to Lee, said Lee's attorney, Bob Hilliard. That brings Toyota's total liability to $10.94 million. Lee will receive $750,000 of that total.

During the trial, Hilliard, told jurors there was a defect in the car's design. He said the Camry's auto-drive assembly could stick, and when tapped or pushed while stuck, it could stick again at a higher speed. He also accused Toyota of never conducting reliability tests on nylon resin pulleys that could be damaged under heat and cause the throttle to stick.

"This is what makes the car go. This is what turns it into a torpedo, a missile, a deadly weapon," Hilliard said during his closing argument.

Toyota said there was no defect in the design of the 1996 Camry. The company's attorney, David Graves, suggested that Lee was an inexperienced driver and mistook the gas pedal for the brake.

Toyota also noted that Lee's car was never subject to the recalls of later-model Toyotas.

Hilliard said the verdict means that other 1996 Toyota Camrys have defects, and perhaps the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to take a look at the car, while owners of those vehicles need to make sure they are safe.

"I am 100 per cent convinced in my heart and mind that there is a defect in this Camry, and that this defect caused this accident," he said.

The crash killed the driver of the other vehicle, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. They were not part of the case.

Trice-Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed and died in October 2007. The jury awarded her estate $4 million.

Trice-Adams' daughter, Jassmine Adams, who was 12 at the time, was seriously injured, as was his father, Quincy Ray Adams. Jassmine Adams was awarded $4 million, and Quincy Adams was awarded $1.25 million. Lesser damages were awarded to Lee and four family members who were in his car at the time.