|Toyota: Lee waited too long to sue over crash|
|Written by Bee|
|Wednesday, 20 April 2011 15:03|
Automaker asks judge to reject amendments to suit over '06 accident
Posted: 04/20/2011 12:01:00 AM CDT
The instant Koua Fong Lee screamed, "Brakes! Brakes not working!" as his Toyota zoomed up the exit ramp before it slammed into another car nearly five years ago was the instant he should have known what civil claims he might have against the automaker, a lawyer argued in court Tuesday.
Toyota Motor Corp. lawyer John Sear told a federal judge in Minneapolis that she should reject a request by attorneys for Lee and others involved in the crash to amend their original civil lawsuit against the carmaker.
A group of plaintiffs that includes Lee and the families of the three people killed in the 2006 accident sued Toyota, but they are seeking permission to amend the suit by adding more claims.
Among the claims: They say Toyota fraudulently concealed defects in Lee's 1996 Camry and that the company's alleged negligence caused him and his wife emotional distress.
While the accident was terrible, there is no legal basis for some of the plaintiffs' claims and the legal deadline for filing them passed, Sear told U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery.
"It's a tragic accident all the way around," Sear said. "But the nature of the tragedy put everyone on notice of the claims they had."
Because so much time had passed since the accident, the statute of limitations could have barred Lee from filing certain claims — such as strict liability and breach of warranty — against Toyota.
So instead, he and his family sought to piggyback his claims by amending a lawsuit against Toyota filed by the survivors and relatives of the people who died in the car his Camry struck.
Sear said the attempt to amend the victims' families' claim came too late for Lee and his family.
"The issue is whether the accident ... gave them notice of a potential claim," Sear said.
Robert Hilliard of Corpus Christi, Texas, who represents Lee and his family, said he didn't have a "good answer" for why the plaintiffs missed a January deadline to amend the complaint. But he said the judge had the power to allow them to add claims to the suit and that the defendants wouldn't be harmed because the two sides had not yet exchanged evidence or taken depositions.
In a motion he had filed in support of his request, he said Toyota had plenty of time to prepare its defense against the new claims because the trial isn't scheduled to start until November 2012.
Lee, 33, of St. Paul, who had bought the used 1996 Camry in the previous March, had his pregnant wife and one of their children in the car as they drove home from church on Interstate 94 on June 10, 2006.
When he took the exit for Snelling Avenue, his car sped up; investigators said it reached 90 mph. An Oldsmobile Ciera was idling at a red light at the top of the ramp, and the speeding Camry plowed into the back of it, killing two people instantly. A third victim died later.
Lee told police he applied the brakes but the car wouldn't slow or stop. Ramsey County charged him with criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular injury and careless driving.
He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to eight years in prison. But after he was imprisoned, stories began emerging of other Toyotas experiencing what was termed "sudden unintended acceleration," and the automaker recalled millions of vehicles.
Many of those problems involved the electronic throttle-control system, which Lee's car lacked because it was an older model. But Hilliard maintained older models also had accelerator problems because of a faulty cable, and last year, he and co-counsel Brent Schafer won Lee's freedom.
At a hearing in state court, Hilliard presented evidence involving other instances of sudden accelerations in older Toyotas. A judge threw out Lee's convictions. Ramsey County prosecutors decided not to retry the case and dropped the charges, and Lee was released from prison.
He filed his lawsuit against Toyota in June 2010, with his case joining other civil suits already filed by Bridgette Trice, the mother of a 7-year-old girl who died in the crash, as well as other survivors of victims of the crash.
Lee claimed that the car's defects caused the accident and that Toyota was negligent, committed fraud and failed to warn its customers about the problems. He also sought damages for the time he spent in prison.
But in arguing that the plaintiffs' cases should be thrown out — or, at a minimum, severely trimmed in scope — Sear said that too much time had passed between assembly of the car in 1995 and the time of the accident. Too many people had been involved with the car to lay sole blame for any problems at Toyota's feet, he said.
He argued that as a matter of law, the automaker's conduct "10 years and 170,000 miles earlier cannot be the proximate cause" of Lee's imprisonment.
But Hilliard countered: "The proximate cause issue is a fact issue that should go to the jury." Noting that many prosecutors file charges in which automobiles are considered deadly weapons, Hilliard argued, "Toyota has to accept the consequences once those charges are pressed."
He argued that the plaintiffs hope to prove there was a problem with a cable in Lee's Camry and that the force on the brakes should have been stronger than the force on the accelerator and the car should have slowed, but for the problem cable.
He claims the automaker knew about the problems as far back as March 1996 because numerous owners had filed complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"The issue is, does the accelerator cable win the war if it is not released while the brakes are being pushed?" he told Montgomery.
"The car was designed to last a lot longer as a car than the cable was to last as a cable," he said.
Sear said claims of sudden unintended acceleration "have been a matter of public knowledge" for some time and that Lee could have made the claim earlier.
Sear argued that if Lee believed at the time of the crash that the brakes and throttle of the Camry failed and caused the accident, then "that's all they needed to know to pursue a claim."
After hearing the arguments, Montgomery told both sides that she'd take the motions to amend the complaints under advisement and issue a ruling later.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.