A Minnesota man freed after spending more than 2½ years in prison for a fatal crash in a Toyota Camry sued Toyota Motor Corp. on Monday, alleging the automaker knew about safety problems in its cars but failed to fix them or warn customers.
Attorneys filed the lawsuit in federal court of behalf of Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul, and other members of his family who the complaint alleges were injured or suffered other distress as a result of either the crash or Lee's incarceration.
Lee always maintained he did everything he could to stop as his 1996 Camry zoomed up a freeway exit ramp in St. Paul and smashed into an Oldsmobile in June 2006, killing three people and severely injuring two others in the other car. But he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.
His case was reopened after reports surfaced about sudden acceleration problems in certain Toyota models. The automaker ordered millions of recalls, and the government fined it $16.4 million for failing to disclose what it knew about sticking accelerators quickly enough.
At a hearing last August, defense investigators presented new evidence and expert testimony backing up Lee's story, persuading a judge to grant him a new trial. Prosecutors quickly dropped the case.
Toyota said Monday that Lee's car wasn't part of the recalls.
"Toyota sympathizes with all of the families affected by the 2006 accident involving Koua Fong Lee. However, Toyota believes that any unintended acceleration allegations are without merit," the company said in a written statement. "The 1996 Camry involved in this case has never been subject to an acceleration-related recall and is designed to meet or exceed all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."
The lawsuit alleges Lee required psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of both the accident and his imprisonment. It says he now has trouble sleeping and requires sleeping medication.
It also says his wife and four young children suffered "severe emotional distress" because of the crash or Lee's imprisonment, while his father, brother and one daughter who were in his car as he drove home from church suffered physical injuries.
The lawsuit seeks damages yet to be determined, but in excess of $75,000.
The lawsuit had been expected. A judge last Wednesday granted Lee's request to join in a lawsuit filed earlier by the mother of a 7-year-old girl who suffered fatal injuries in the Oldsmobile, after Toyota attorneys dropped their objections.
Monday's filing formally makes Lee a plaintiff in that case and means it will he heard by the same judge. It's one of hundreds of lawsuits Toyota is now facing across the country over allegations of sudden acceleration problems.
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