Taking A Second Look Gives A Case A Second Life
Trice, et al. v. Toyota Motor Corp., et al., Case No. 0:10-cv-02804, United States District Court, District of Minnesota. Markovits, Stock & DeMarco, LLC, represented plaintiffs and prepared potential class representatives for deposition testimony.
The partnership of Markovits, Stock & DeMarco, LLC, and Adams and Trice prevailed, winning a settlement valued at roughly $11 million.
In June 2006 a Toyota Camry, driven by Koua Fong Lee, had just exited the freeway and was coming up the ramp when it suddenly accelerated out of control. Lee, who had his pregnant wife, daughter, father and brother in the car with him, swerved to avoid several stopped cars along the off-ramp and repeatedly stomped on the Camry’s brakes. The Camry continued to accelerate and ultimately smashed into an Oldsmobile that was at a stoplight along the off-ramp. In the Oldsmobile was six-year-old Devyn Bolton, her uncle, her grandfather and her two young cousins.
The collision instantly killed Devyn’s uncle and one of her cousins. Devyn’s grandfather and her other cousin survived with significant brain, hip and leg injuries. Lee and the occupants of his car survived. Paramedics were able to extract Devyn from the Oldsmobile and revive her heart on the way to the hospital. Devyn emerged from her coma several weeks later, but the crash had rendered her a quadriplegic.
Lee was charged vehicular homicide. At his trial, he maintained his innocence and insisted his foot was on the brake and the Camry accelerated on its own. The jury did not believe Lee’s story and he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Soon after the conviction, Devyn succumbed to the injuries she had sustained from the crash.
Two years into Lee’s prison sentence, Toyota issued recalls for several model years of its Camry due to “unintended acceleration.” Even though the recalls did not include 1996 Camrys, the recalls renewed interest in Lee’s defense that a vehicle defect caused the crash.
Investigators took a second look at his Camry. What they discovered this second time around was shocking: Forensic evidence revealed the brake light filament on Mr. Lee’s Camry was illuminated at the time that it broke; his foot was on the brake. Lee was released from prison after more than two years of incarceration.
In June 2010, Devyn’s mother filed a lawsuit against Toyota for product defect related to the mechanical throttle in its 1996 Camry. She was joined in the lawsuit by Devyn’s grandfather and surviving cousin, as well as by the next of kin for Devyn’s deceased uncle and deceased cousin. Lee and his family members ultimately joined the lawsuit as well. Because six years had passed since the collision, the statute of limitations prevented the next of kin for Devyn’s deceased uncle and deceased cousin from being able to pursue their claims. Since Devyn had survived as a quadriplegic for nearly two years prior to her passed, the statute of limitations had not yet run on claims related to her death. Devyn’s mother brought these claims to trial to hold Toyota accountable.
Leading up to trial, Toyota insisted there was no defect with the throttle of their 1996 Camry and that they had thoroughly tested the throttle prior to placing the car into production. One month before trial, however, Toyota recanted their statements and admitted to Devyn’s mother that they actually never heat-tested a critical plastic component that controls the opening and closing of the mechanical throttle. It was this precise component that plaintiffs had argued for years will expand and get stuck if exposed to a certain amount of heat. In a dramatic moment at trial, Toyota’s own expert agreed with plaintiffs and conceded that heat could indeed cause the throttle to stick. Plaintiffs successfully proved to the jury that this amount of heat could occur during normal driving conditions if the Camry is overheating or simply has a plugged-up radiator – which is likely what happened on that fateful day in 2006. After five days of deliberation, the jury found in plaintiffs’ favor and awarded the plaintiffs with a verdict of more than $11 million.
Toyota appealed, arguing that the jury should have never been allowed to hear testimony from other Toyota drivers who also experienced sudden unintended acceleration events in their 1996 Camrys. The appellate court disagreed, stating that the other sudden unintended acceleration incidents were strikingly similar to Lee’s, and thus, permissible forms of evidence.
“Toyota denied responsibility for so many years, then finally admitted they did not conduct proper testing,” said Bill Markovits at the time of the decision. “Then they appealed arguing that the jury should not have heard testimony from other drivers who were also affected by this defect. Toyota should not wait for any more tragedies before accepting responsibility for this defect.”
The Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict that found a product defect in Toyota Motor Corp’s 1996 Camry caused unintended acceleration and resulted in three deaths and significant injuries to passengers of two vehicles.
The Camry accelerated from an exit-ramp speed of 55 mph to a collision speed of 75 mph. Throughout trial, Toyota argued that Lee must have accidentally had his foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake; they insisted that a car with a stuck mechanical throttle could never accelerate beyond the speed at which it became stuck. The breakthrough moment came midway through trial when MSD advanced a theory that a stuck mechanical throttle can cause a vehicle to accelerate – if the driver is jockeying his foot between the brake pedal and the “stuck” gas pedal while not knowing the gas pedal is stuck. This is what happened when Lee pressed his foot on the brake to slow down when he exited. Not knowing the gas pedal was stuck at freeway speed, Lee unwittingly pushed the gas pedal to the floor when he tapped on it to accelerate up the ramp. When Lee experienced unexpected acceleration, he quickly transitioned his foot back to the brake and stomped on it for a full six seconds – but his efforts were no match for the engine’s new power setting, which continued to accelerate the vehicle until impact at 75 mph.
MSD created victory by thinking outside the box. At trial, Toyota focused on the moment in time after Lee exited the freeway, arguing that a mechanical “stuck throttle” could not have occurred at this point since Lee’s car experienced acceleration – going from 55 to 75 mph. MSD stepped back and asked, “Well, what would have happened if Lee’s throttle got stuck while he was still on the freeway – but Lee didn’t realize it until he exited?” In closing argument, this theory was fleshed out and matched up perfectly with the facts – and the jury agreed. Toyota was so unprepared for this theory that it argued in post-trial briefs to the court that it should get a “do-over” trial since the car giant was caught off guard. The court refused to let Toyota retry the case, holding that plaintiffs adequately laid the groundwork for their theory throughout the trial.