(CN) – A Minnesota federal judge cleared the way for a lawsuit against Toyota over a deadly car crash that may have been caused by a sticking accelerator. The car’s driver had served almost three of his eight-year prison sentence before being released last year amid a major Toyota recall.
In 2006, a 1996 Toyota Camry driven by Koua Fong Lee collided with an Oldsmobile carrying five passengers. Three passengers were killed and the others suffered severe injuries.
Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and careless driving and received an eight-year sentence.
In March 2010, Lee petitioned for post-conviction relief based on two product recalls of Toyota vehicles. Though the recalls did not specifically cover Lee’s Camry, two expert witnesses corroborated Lee’s story that he applied the brakes but the accelerator system malfunctioned.
Before the crash, witnesses said Lee had shouted, “Brakes! Brakes not working!”
Lee was released from prison, and his criminal convictions were vacated.
At Lee’s hearing, 11 other witnesses testified they had experienced acceleration problems with their 1995 or 1996 Toyota Camry.
Lee and others involved in the crash sued Toyota, claiming that the company knew of defects in the Camry through complaints to Toyota dealerships and complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but had fraudulently concealed the problem.
Toyota moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs had failed to diligently investigate the claims.
“The Toyota Defendants appear to argue that Lee’s protestations of innocence provided sufficient notice that any reasonable person would have known of the existence of a cause of action,” Judge Ann Montgomery wrote. “This argument is rejected.”
Because Lee’s criminal conviction created a competing theory of causation, the plaintiffs were not necessarily alerted to the existence of a cause of action.
Montgomery granted the plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint, but threw out Lee’s claim for damages regarding his incarceration.
“None of the alleged acts by the Toyota Defendants were a ‘substantial factor’ in Lee’s incarceration,” Montgomery wrote. “Rather, the casual chain includes many independent actions and decisions by the Ramsey County Attorney, Lee’s ineffective criminal defense attorney, the jury, and the sentencing judge, among others. All of these factors combined to result in Lee’s wrongful conviction and incarceration.”