Toyota Owes $14 Million for Camry Acceleration Deaths

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Toyota must pay $14 million to survivors of a multiple-fatality car accident caused by a 1996 Camry’s uncontrolled acceleration, the Eighth Circuit ruled.

After a three-week trial in 2015, a jury found Toyota liable and awarded more than $14 million in damages for a June 10, 2006 collision that tore apart two families.

Toyota recalled nearly 8 million vehicles in 2010, including its 2008 and 2009 Camry models, for unintended acceleration problems, and paid a $1.2 billion fine for hiding the problems from government regulators.

In the case at issue, Koua Fong Lee said that his Camry experienced the same problem on an interstate in St. Paul 12 years ago. Driving his pregnant wife and other family members, Lee said his 1996 Camry accelerated up an off-ramp of its own accord and hit an Oldsmobile Cierra stopped at a red light. The crash killed the father and son in the Cierra, rendered a niece quadriplegic, and severely injured two other passengers. Lee served an 8-year sentence for criminal convictions of vehicular homicide and careless driving.

But Toyota’s Camry recalls later gave Lee grounds to successfully challenge his convictions.

A jury found Lee 40 percent responsible for the accident and awarded him $1.25 million for the 60 percent that was the car’s fault.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery on Friday awarded far more to the family members in the Cierra.

Devyn Bolton died at the age of 6, a year after the crash rendered her a quadriplegic. Montgomery raised the $4 million award to her estate to more than $7.3 million, including interest and funeral and medical expenses.

The judge refused to reduce the award for the “horrific, tragic and distressing event” suffered by teenager Jassmine Adams, who survived, but was trapped in the car with her dead and dying family members.

The Eighth Circuit upheld the jury’s finding that the accident was caused by a defect in the car: not because Lee stepped on the wrong pedal.

“The jury heard testimony from two qualified experts with competing opinions regarding the cause of the accident. Both of them testified extensively about their respective theories of defect and causation and both were subjected to lengthy and detailed cross-examination,” Ninth Circuit Judge Jane Kelly wrote for the panel.

“Though Toyota disagrees with [plaintiffs’ mechanical engineering expert John] Stilson’s opinions and conclusions – including his explanation that moving the cruise control lever did not affect the validity of his testing – ‘questions of conflicting evidence must be left for the jury’s determination.’”

The circuit court reversed the award of pre-judgment interest, but said that the award to Devyn’s estate should not be reduced by the amount of a prior settlement entered with Lee and Lee’s insurer.

“Allowing Devyn Bolton’s next of kin to recover the full amount of the jury award in this case is not inequitable because Devyn recovered for her own injuries while she was living,” Kelly wrote.

Joining her on the unanimous panel were Eighth Circuit Judges James Loken and Senior Judge Diana Murphy.

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