Imagine being jailed for two years for a “vehicular homicide” that arose when you and your car drove into another car, causing deaths and devastating injuries. Imagine the guilt for the harm caused. Imagine the anguish of going through a criminal trial and conviction even though you and the family member passengers in your car staunchly proclaimed that you tried to brake but the car went out of control on its own. Imagine later finding out that the car you were driving (a Camry) appears to have had defects that match to your statement of what happened. Imagine being freed from jail after two years because of new evidence of the alleged product defect in the Camry.
That incredible fact pattern is real. I stumbled on it while reading an August 15, 2017 post at the Weil product liability blog. That post focuses on the legal issue of admitting evidence of other “similar” events, and is worth reading on that point. The point here, however, is to highlight the incredible fact pattern. The facts pasted below are taken from the district court opinion in Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2802 ADM/JSM, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76903 (D. Minn. June 15, 2015), aff’d, Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., 859 F.3d 499 (8th Cir. 2017).
A. The Crash
Nine years ago, on June 10, 2006, Koua Fong Lee (“Lee”) was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry eastbound on Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota. With him in the car were his then-pregnant wife Panghoua Moua, his daughter Jemee Lee, his brother Nong Lee, and his father Nhia Koua Lee. Reilly Decl. [Trice Docket No. 313] Ex. 7 65-66. As Lee progressed up the Snelling Avenue exit ramp from the interstate, he alleges pressing the brake pedal, only to find the brakes unresponsive. Id. at 71-72.
At the apex of the Snelling Avenue ramp, which merges with Concordia Avenue, an Oldsmobile Ciera was idling at a red light controlling the intersection of Concordia and Snelling Avenues. Javis Trice-Adams was the driver of the Ciera. With him were Quincy Ray Adams, an adult, as well as Javis Adams, Jr., Jassmine Adams, and Devyn Bolton, all minors. The occupants of the Ciera were all members [*5] of the same extended family. Pls.’s 2d Am. Compl. [Block Docket No. 103] (“Block Compl.”) ¶¶ 20-21.
Lee’s Camry continued up the ramp and struck the Ciera at a high rate of speed. The Ciera sustained severe structural damage and the impact forced the car into oncoming traffic. Block Compl. ¶¶ 23-27. Javis Trice-Adams and his son, Javis Adams, Jr., died at the scene of the collision. Jassmine and Quincy Adams suffered serious injuries, but survived. Bolton, six years old at the time, was rendered a quadraplegic and subsequently died in October 2007. All of the occupants of the Camry survived the crash.
Lee was charged and eventually convicted of seven counts of vehicular homicide and injury, and one count of careless driving despite his testimony that the Camry’s brakes had failed. Block Compl. ¶ 34. In October 2007, Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison.
In 2009 and 2010, Toyota issued recalls for vehicles with “unintended acceleration.” Although these recalls did not include 1996 Camrys, the model year of Lee’s Camry, the recalls renewed interest in Lee’s defense that a vehicle defect caused the crash. Lee petitioned for, and was ultimately granted, post-conviction relief. The county [*6] attorney subsequently decided not to appeal or re-file criminal charges. Lee was released from prison after over two years of incarceration. Id. ¶ 52.
In June 2010, the surviving occupants of the Ciera and trustees for the next of kin of the deceased filed suit against Toyota. On October 25, 2010, Lee and his family moved to intervene in the Trice action. Mot. to Intervene [Trice Docket No. 51]. Toyota ultimately stipulated to the inclusion of the Lees and further stipulated that their insurance company, American Family Insurance Company (“American Family”), could also intervene in the Trice action as the Lees’ subrogee. Stipulation [Trice Docket No. 78].
The Plaintiffs and Lees filed a collection of claims against Toyota grounded in six different legal theories: (1) design defect, (2) failure to warn, (3) negligence, (4) fraud/misrepresentation, (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress, and (6) breach of warranty. After summary judgment motions were decided, only design defect and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims remained for trial.2
B. The Trial [*7] The trial commenced on January 7, 2015 and the jury began deliberating on January 28, 2015. Over the course of the trial, the jury heard testimony from 26 witnesses, viewed hundreds of photographs and other exhibits, and observed witnesses illustrate their testimony through the use of numerous models and other demonstrative exhibits. In total, the jury was in session for nearly 75 hours of trial time.
Succinctly, Plaintiffs’ theory of defect was that the accelerator control system was defective because it was assembled with heat sensitive components that, under certain conditions, will stick or bind, causing the throttle control system to remain stuck even after the driver releases their foot from the accelerator pedal.
C. Jury Verdict and Judgment
On February 3, 2015, after deliberating five days, the jury reached a verdict finding: (1) Toyota’s design of the 1996 Camry resulted in a defective product that was unreasonably dangerous to Plaintiffs and was a direct cause of Plaintiffs’ injuries; (2) Koua Fong Lee was negligent in his operation of the 1996 Camry and Lee’s negligence was a direct cause of Plaintiffs’ injuries; and (3) Toyota was 60% at fault and Lee was 40% at fault for Plaintiffs’ [*8] injuries. See Verdict [Trice Docket No. 550].
Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., No. 10-2802 ADM/JSM, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76903 (D. Minn. June 15, 2015), aff’d
Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., 859 F.3d 499 (8th Cir. 2017).