Tag Archives: Toyota

Unintentional Losses…

How many times have we seen car ads that boast about this feature…?  From zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds!

This type of maneuvering has been proudly embraced by car manufacturers for years as a top selling point over other makes and models. But truth be told, no other car manufacturer has anything that surpasses the capabilities of a Toyota Camry! Certain model year Camrys can go from zero to ninety in as much time and they have a track record to prove it.

I’m just speculating but based on this news report from a recent class action lawsuit in a Minneapolis courtroom which has garnered much attention nationwide, exoneree, Koua Fong Lee, former owner of a 1996 Toyota Camry along with the family of the deceased victims of an Oldsmobile Ciera, would probably agree that this is not a factor to be celebrated. In fact, they have asked Toyota, Corporation to fix a serious problem of unintentional acceleration due to issues with the car’s electronic throttle mechanism so that it does not cause harm to any more lives.

“Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and his father and brother home on June 10, 2006, when he exited Interstate 94. As his Camry accelerated, he sideswiped one car before hitting an Oldsmobile Ciera. Experts said Lee’s car was traveling between 76 and 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams’ niece Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed and died 16 months later. The three who died were “complete innocents,” said attorney Bill Markovits, who is representing the Trice-Adams family. “We ask you to hold Toyota fully liable,” he said.”  Star Tribune, Jan. 8, 2015

Despite numerous other drivers of the same make of Camry, who have come forward because of experiencing sudden unintentional acceleration-the same issue that Lee insists caused his crash, Toyota stands by its assertion that the fatal crash in 2008 that killed three people and sent Lee to prison for 2.5 years, was solely due to driver error. Part of their argument during the recent hearing states that Lee was an inexperienced driver and that he had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. They also argued that his 1996 model was not involved in a future recall event that dealt with the very problem he experienced.

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Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry. Photo courtesy of Star Tribune, Mpls, MN 

“Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007. A massive recall of newer Toyota models because of problems with sudden acceleration, starting in the fall of 2009, prompted attorneys to reopen Lee’s case. Ramsey County prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2010. The 1996 Camry was not among the vehicles recalled. Lee and four family members who were passengers in the Camry joined with family members from the Oldsmobile in a suit against Toyota.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

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Koua Fong Lee at a press conference in Mpls following a jury verdict. Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune, Mpls, MN

“Trembling as he spoke, and occasionally lifting a tissue to his face, Lee said, “I tried to rebuild my life, but it is very difficult to move on. I am very sad. I want to apologize to the other families” who had members killed or injured. “Every day I think about that accident,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “Many lives lost.” Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2015.

“Toyota’s attorneys appeared to be caught off guard. Driver Koua Fong Lee lost control of his 1996 Camry, said his attorney Bob Hilliard, because each time he tapped the gas pedal on the long exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue, the car accelerated.” Star Tribune, Jan. 29, 2015

This week’s outcome:

“Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $10.9 million in damages for the high-speed crash in St. Paul that cost the lives of three people and sent another man to prison, a federal jury decided Tuesday. Jurors in the Toyota liability trial found the world’s largest auto company 60 percent responsible for a 2006 crash that also sent a St. Paul man to prison for 2½ years. They found Koua Fong Lee, driver of the 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into a stopped car at the top of an Interstate 94 exit, 40 percent responsible.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

My thoughts drift between deep empathy for both families involved in this terrible incident and what the answer is, as to the appropriate responsibility and duty of the nation’s largest automobile company. Personally, I had hoped that Toyota would have seen a clear and evident problem with their product, and that precious lives are still being destroyed because of it. It would have been prudent for them to take a more compassionate approach. They should have shown the world that their company is based on the highest standard of integrity, by putting their funds towards more in-depth research to get to the bottom of this issue rather than pay multiple attorneys to blame the victims.

Honestly, I believe that what will end up happening is that enough people will feel the same way as I and will seriously consider their next car purchase with this lawsuit in mind. Of course, there will be those who stand by Toyota no matter what because they like the product, but I think that in the long run, Toyota may have already caused their own demise which will likely affect their bottom line as well as their reliability, not to mention their unintentional loss of integrity.

Vroom  Vrooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom…………                                                                                                                 

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Separate Ahmong Equals…Pt 2

Continue on with this astonishing story, the revelations began as I navigated the Innocence Project of Minnesota website. I had clicked on the page that lists movies and books depicting wrongful conviction cases. I noticed one book that had been added recently. Its title read, “The Road to Freedom; Strangers Restore Justice for an Innocent Man,” by Trudy Baltazar. Hmmm…interesting. Similar to the kind of activity I was engaging in with the Wisconsin Monfils case. I read the paragraph next to the book image and saw that it was about the famous Toyota case which happened here in Minnesota. I was intrigued and wanted to find out if the author was local. I did a search. It appeared that she not only lives in Minnesota but is close to where I live. Wow. I wondered why I wasn’t aware of what she was doing. I decided to search for her online. She was definitely someone I wanted to meet. I found a link to purchase her book. I ordered a copy which also prompted me to highlight Mr. Lee’s case that month for my exoneree series.

A crucial detail I learned about Mr. Lee’s case was that approximately 33 months after he was imprisoned, an attorney filed a request for an evidentiary hearing. The purpose of this hearing was for the judge to rule on whether or not to grant him a new trial based on new evidence that had come to light. The hearing was granted, but then according to Trudy’s book, this happened:

Upon hearing a news broadcast in St. Paul, Minnesota about a husband/father who was wrongfully imprisoned after he drove a car that suddenly accelerated and killed three people, Trudy Baltazar felt compelled to act. She didn’t know the man and she didn’t know the victims but she felt something wasn’t right when the county attorney opposed a new trial even though there was new evidence and 44 new witnesses”.

Trudy had organized a rally in front of the Ramsey County Courthouse. She contacted the local media and one reporter privately contacted her to ask if she would be interested in doing an interview. Trudy was warned that she would be on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and as it turned out, the article appeared on a Monday, the same day as the rally was to be held. The rally was an overwhelming success with people from all ethnicities and walks of life showing up to voice their concern over this opposition. All of the major local TV stations were there and Trudy was interviewed by each of them.  Big news in Minnesota and in my neck of the woods! But where was I?

This rally had taken place in the summer of 2010. I thought about the timing and it occurred to me that this was the same time that I was heavily involved in advocating for the five Wisconsin men. I’d been making numerous trips to Green Bay to strategize about how to get our own attention concerning those convictions. We were embroiled in our own controversy as I pushed for a risky and bold move, to stage our own rally in Downtown Green Bay near the Brown County Courthouse.

Our rally had to happen on October 28th which is the date in 1995 when the guilty verdicts were handed down. The press surrounding the Monfils Conspiracy book was starting to wane and the pressure was on to keep the momentum going about this injustice. A rally was the only way to get the necessary attention. We could not afford to allow this opportunity to slip away. Until now, no one had pursued this sort of activity and I knew it was up to me to bring it alive.

Trudy states in her book that she had been innately compelled to do something big, though she didn’t know what. How ironic it is for two determined women with essentially the same motivations to simultaneously be inspired. What’s more, to share in a similar event that would cause a shake-down of an entire law enforcement community in two separate states? Whew! You cannot predict something like that.

Well…Trudy and I became good friends. I admire her because of her selfless actions to help an innocent man-a man who is now free. Trudy succeeded in doing something that few are able or willing to do. For this reason, I asked her to speak at one of our car shows to tell her story. Trudy works full time but stays in contact with Koua’s family. She remains an advocate for others in matters concerning the unintentional acceleration issue. I continue to work on what my legacy will be. How fortunate for two gutsy women leading their own charges in the abolition of wrongful convictions, to cross paths. We stay connected and lend support for each others’ efforts to make a difference for those whose voices have been silenced and forgotten.

Lastly, when I wrapped my mind around all I had learned, another thing hit me like a Mac truck. A few years back, when I was parking my 1999 Toyota behind a restaurant, it proceeded to do the exact same thing as Mr. Lee’s. It unintentionally accelerated at an unbelievably high speed despite my efforts of putting pressure on the brake! Luckily, I was able to shut the ignition off which stopped the acceleration. This incident had slipped my mind until now, because, unlike in Koua’s case, my experience did not result in anyone’s death.

Separate Ahmong Equals…Pt 1

Once in a while, life throws a remarkable revelation at you and all you can do is sit there…speechless. I’m excited to share this exoneree of the month story but in order to complete it, I have to share another related substory. However, I’ve decided to keep you in suspense until next month by separating it into two parts. I assure you that both elements add greatly to the telling of this story.

Here’s a brief summary about exoneree, Koua Fong Lee-a Hmong living in Minnesota. His is a catastrophic wrongful conviction case that most in Minnesota are familiar with. Sadly, even now, the details surrounding his exoneration are linked to an ongoing controversy with the Toyota company.

In June of 2006, Mr. Lee and his family were on their way home from church when their 1996 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated to 90 miles per hour on a St Paul, MN exit ramp and crashed into the back of another car, killing three people. In 2007, he was charged with intentional vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. But then two years later, other Toyota drivers complained about “sudden unintentional acceleration” and Toyota began to recall millions of cars, though not the ’96 model. With the help of the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN), Mr. Lee’s new Attorney tracked down other drivers who had the same experience with cars similar to his. Based on new evidence and errors by his trial Attorney, Mr. Lee filed a motion for a new trial. The motion went forward and he was exonerated on August 5th 2010 after serving three years of his sentence.

In 2012, I met Mr. Lee and his wife, Pangoua Moua, at a benefit hosted by the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Both are exceptionally humble people with a deep gratitude for the help they received during this perplexing episode in their lives. The relief they feel that the worst is behind them is still evident. I felt privileged to have met them. It’s difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of these people whose lives are ripped apart. But it’s amazing to see how many of them are able to move forward, keeping the nightmares at bay. Knowing that this is not always the case it’s nonetheless, a blessing.

Recently, I researched this case a bit further and stumbled upon another rather important aspect, central to how Mr. Lee’s release came about. It all happened unbeknownst to me even though it was going on in my own back yard. I was astonished as I learned more about the details surrounding Lee’s exoneration. In fact, what was going on in Minnesota with Mr. Lee’s case was similar to what I was actively pursuing in Green Bay, Wisconsin!

And then…another revelation even more startling, dawned on me…