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Jury: Toyota must pay $11M to victims of fatal crash

    In this June 10, 2006 file photo, Koua Fong Lee, back right, holding is 4-year-old daughter, with his wife, Pang Moua, looks on as emergency personnel work at the scene of an accident after the 1996 Camry he was driving rear-ended another vehicle.

MINNEAPOLIS >> A federal jury found that Toyota Motor Corp. must pay nearly $11 million to victims of a fatal 2006 crash after deciding Tuesday that a design flaw in the 1996 Camry was partly to blame for the Minnesota wreck.

Jurors said the company was 60 percent 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 percent to blame.

Lee and his family sued the company, along with those injured in the crash and relatives of those killed, 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 that the vehicle wasn’t the cause of the accident. The company said it will study the record and consider its legal options going forward.

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

Under Minnesota law, Tuesday’s verdict means Toyota is responsible for paying all damages minus 40 percent of the amount awarded to Lee, bringing Toyota’s total liability to $10.94 million. Lee will receive $750,000 of that total.

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

Lee’s attorney, Bob Hilliard, said it was a relief for Lee to hear “this accident that has caused him so much suffering was primarily the responsibility of Toyota.”

During the trial, Hilliard told jurors that 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.

Hilliard 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, and that Lee was negligent. The company’s attorney, David Graves, suggested that Lee was an inexperienced driver and mistook the gas pedal for the brake, and that’s why the car accelerated.

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

Jurors were asked to decide whether there was a defect in the design of the 1996 Camry that was unreasonably dangerous, and if so, whether that defect caused the plaintiffs’ injuries.

The crash killed the driver of the other vehicle, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. His 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed and died in October 2007.

Trice-Adams’ daughter, Jassmine Adams, who was 12 at the time, was seriously injured, as was Trice-Adams’ father, Quincy Ray Adams. Those two and Devyn Bolton’s mother, Bridgette Trice, were the other plaintiffs in the case, along with Lee and four of his family members who were in his car at the time of the crash.

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