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Jury awards $11 million in lawsuit over auto defect

Koua Fong Lee wipes his eye as he is interviewed Feb. 24, 2010 at the state prison in Lino Lakes, Minn., where he is serving a sentence for a fatal accident involving his 1996 Toyota Camry in June 2006 in St. Paul, Minn., that killed three people. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)
AP Photo/Jeff Baenen

MINNEAPOLIS - A federal jury ruled that Toyota bore most of the responsibility in a 2006 car crash that took the lives of three people, CBS Minneapolis reported. But it also placed some blame on the driver of the vehicle, who was jailed as a result but later released.

Tuesday afternoon, the jury awarded Koua Fong Lee and the families involved in the accident $11.44 million from Toyota in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Jurors decided that the company was 60 percent to blame for the wreck, but that Lee, who has long insisted he tried to slow his car before it slammed into another vehicle, was 40 percent to blame. The wreck also seriously injured two people.

Lee was driving a 1996 Camry when it slammed into another vehicle at a high speed after he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minn. He says he tried to brake, but the car wouldn't slow; while Toyota argued there was no design defect and Lee was negligent.

Javis Trice Adams, 33, and his 10-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr., died in the 2006 accident. Adams' 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was paralyzed from the neck down and died shortly after Lee was convicted. Two others were badly hurt.

Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to prison for the wreck. He won a new trial after reports surfaced about sudden acceleration in some Toyotas, and questions were raised about the adequacy of his defense.

Prosecutors opted against a retrial and he went free after spending 2 ½ years behind bars. Lee and his relatives, along with other people who were injured or lost loved ones in the crash, later sued Toyota.

During the trial, Lee's attorney, Robert Hilliard, told jurors that there was a defect in the car's design. He said the Camry's auto-drive assembly could stick, and when tapped or pushed while stuck, it could stick again at a higher speed.

Hilliard also accused Toyota of never conducting reliability tests on nylon resin pulleys that could be damaged under heat and cause the throttle to stick.

"This is what makes the car go. This is what turns it into a torpedo, a missile, a deadly weapon," Hilliard said during his closing argument.

Toyota said there was no defect in the design of the 1996 Camry, and that Lee was negligent. The company's attorney, David Graves, suggested that Lee was an inexperienced driver and mistook the gas pedal for the brake, and that's why the car accelerated.

Toyota also noted that Lee's car was never subject to the recalls of later-model Toyotas. Jurors were asked to decide whether there was a defect in the design of the 1996 Camry that was unreasonably dangerous, and if so, whether that defect caused the plaintiffs' injuries.

In a statement released shortly after the verdict came out, Toyota maintained that it was not at fault in the accident.

"We sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles, including the Trice, Adams and Lee families," according to the statement. "While we respect the jury's decision, we believe the evidence clearly demonstrated that Mr. Lee's 1996 Camry was not the cause of this unfortunate accident. We will study the record and carefully consider our legal options going forward."