Vehicular Homicide Case To Be Re-Opened in Light of “Toyota Defense”


The recent recalls by auto industry giant Toyota, in which over two million vehicles have been recalled due to concerns with malfunctioning accelerator pedals, may be forcing the courts to reconsider just where the fault lies in some auto accident cases.

Take, for example, the case of Koua Fong Lee, a St. Paul man whose Toyota Camry was involved in a fatal crash in 2006. Lee was driving home from church, accompanied by his pregnant wife, four-year-old daughter, brother and father, when his Camry suddenly accelerated to between 70 and 90 miles an hour. It sped up an exit ramp off of Interstate 94 and rear-ended an Oldsmobile. One man and two children were killed in the accident, and Lee—despite his protestations that he was braking as hard as possible—was convicted on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide. He was also given the maximum sentence of eight years in prison.

Crucial testimony in Lee’s case came from a mechanic who had inspected the 1996 Camry and found its brakes to be functioning normally. Prosecutors argued that Lee must have stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. Now, with questions about Toyota models’ mechanical failures coming to light, Lee is pressing for his case to be reevaluated.

Although Lee’s Camry was not among those recalled for accelerator pedal problems, Toyota has recalled some 1996 Camrys for defective cruise controls, which could also cause sudden acceleration, and a number of ’96 Camrys have filed complaints alleging similar problems to that which caused Lee’s crash.

Even family members of the victims have reversed their opinion of the Lee case. Once lambasting him for the tragedy, they now believe that he is innocent—and are planning to bring suit against Toyota. The former prosecutor whose work sent Lee to prison also believes that the case should be reopened.

Lee’s current attorney, Brent Schafer, plans to file paperwork requesting that the wrecked Camry be inspected again in light of the new information about Toyota vehicles. The next step would be to convince a judge that this new evidence is reason to grant a new trial for Lee, whose family is struggling to make ends meet while he serves time.

Revelations by the automaker that safety problems with certain Toyota models are more extensive than initially reported have sparked a wave of lawsuits, including class-action lawsuits, and these numbers are expected by legal experts to rise in the coming months.


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