As feds slam Toyota over hiding sticky pedal, let’s remember Koua Fong Lee

Koua Fong Lee embraces his wife outside of the Ramsey County jail in August 2010, moments after learning that prosecutors would not seek a new case against  him. Lee had spent more than three years in jail after he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after a 2006 crash he argued was triggered by his Toyota’s rapid acceleration. Tom Weber/MPR News

It’s easy to be angry reading through today’s U.S. Justice Department’s takedown of Toyota detailing the car company’s reprehensible behavior hiding safety flaws in some of its models that triggered unintended acceleration and, ultimately, led to deaths.

It’s just hard to know where to start.

As part of a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the Justice Department, Toyota admitted “that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues affecting its vehicles, each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration,” the feds said. Toyota will pay a $1.2 billion financial penalty, “the largest penalty of its kind ever imposed on an automotive company.”

Toyota’s behavior was “shameful” and it “protected its brand ahead of its own customers,” U.S. Attorney Eric Holder said.

That might bring some comfort to Koua Fong Lee, the St. Paul man convicted of criminal vehicular homicide for a 2006 crash that killed three people. Lee had maintained that he tried to brake as he got off Interstate 94, but that his 1996 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated, ramming into stopped cars.

A jury didn’t buy it, sentencing him in 2008 to eight years.

He was released from prison in 2010 after a judge ordered a new trial and prosecutors declined to prosecute him again as reports grew of Toyota unintended acceleration crashes, including a widely publicized 2009 crash in San Diego, Calif., that killed a family of four.

As MPR News reported, “not even Lee’s own attorney went along with his story that he had tried to brake until this year, when millions of Toyotas were recalled because of sudden acceleration problems.”

Part of the problem back then was that Lee’s Camry wasn’t part of  the recall, suggesting that he, not his car, was still to blame for the crash.

Today’s documents, however, make it clear the company was doing all it could to minimize recalls and mislead regulators even as its engineers recognized problems with sticky gas pedals and problem floor mats.

We trusted that Toyota’s recalls were honest and complete. They weren’t.

Koua Fong Lee spent more than two years in prison for the crash that killed Carolyn Trice’s two grandchildren and her son. After Lee was freed, she had the humanity and character to say, “It’s still not going to bring back my loss, but I’m glad the innocent got released.”

Toyota is paying for its negligence today with cash. 

  • Vincent Louis Marino

    Toyota should NOT be allowed to simply pay the money!? Someone – or several someones – should be made to switch places with Lee and go to prison for as long as he was in there! They should be forced to pay him millions in punitive damage too! My GOD what the hell is going on out there. He’ was coming home from Church (for Christ’s sake!) with his kids in car seats showing otherwise NO motive or unreasonable behavior indicative of guilt yet they go after him anyway because THE FRAME FITS? Directly unrelated but almost equal in its incredulity, you’ve got the NYC district attorney charging a mentally ill homeless man with attempted murder because 2 of NYC’s finest shot at him – and missed – striking 2 pedestrians while he was in the throws of a psychotic break (google it someone got the whole thing on his cell and I’ve seen it!) on 42nd St near the Port Authority. This DA has the grand-man-lady-balls to say “his behavior caused the SITUATION that led to their injuries. Our judicial system, cops, prosecutors the whole damned lot of them are simply out of control! Man, it’s all nuts out there…

  • Excellent article, Paul. PLEASE investigate why Koua gave up his right to seek punitive damages in exchange for joining the lawsuit filed by other victims of the crash. I’ve been blogging about Recall King Toyota for quite some time, and have published more than one post about Koua’s case. My blog is titled “Beware of Toyota. Their next victim may be YOU…” and my 3/19/14 post, “Jailed Toyota driver deserves punitive damages” addresses the issue. http://uc2.blogspot.com/2014/03/jailed-toyota-driver-deserves-punitive.html

  • Charlene Blake

    Google “Beware of Toyota. Their next victim may be YOU” for some critical information on Toyota sudden acceleration. The Camry SUA that caused the three-year false imprisonment of Koua Fong Lee in 1996 is different from the Toyota fault-caused SUA discovered by computer expert Michael Barr in the electronic throttle control software. Interestingly enough, the settlement reached between the DOJ and Toyota for $1.2 BILLION doesn’t address the SUA caused by the Toyota software bug found by Michael Barr. It would seem then that the cause of the more recent Toyota SUA has not been resolved for vehicle owners. Is their safety at risk?

  • Guest

    Google “Beware of Toyota. Their next victim may be YOU” for some critical information on Toyota sudden acceleration. The Camry SUA that caused the three-year false imprisonment of Koua Fong Lee in 1996 is different from the Toyota fault-caused SUA discovered by computer expert Michael Barr in the electronic throttle control software. Interestingly enough, the settlement reached between the DOJ and Toyota for $1.2 BILLION doesn’t address the SUA caused by the Toyota software bug found by Michael Barr. It would seem then that the cause of the more recent Toyota SUA has not been resolved for vehicle owners. Is their safety at risk?

    • Betsy Benjaminson

      Dear Guest, I have the bulk of the documents that the DOJ also used in its case against Toyota. Their Statement of Facts that was disclosed as part of the announcement of the $1.2 billion fine reads like a summary of the documents on this computer. But aside from those docs, I also received 230 docs related to electronics as a separate batch for translation. What happened to those after they left my hands? I don’t know. They got to the defense law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, but where they went from there is anyone’s guess, and the DOJ is not talking. But I have other evidence that the DOJ investigators deliberately did not address the electronics defects found by Barr. They must have had proper legal reasons not to. But now that Toyota is legally bound to tell the absolute truth in all its public statements, I wonder whether they can be forced to disclose their own concerns about the unreliability of their ETC and the unpredictability of their vehicle behavior. Toyota, are you listening? What do you have to say about the engineering of your ETC and failsafe now? How can you explain the 70% of SUA that your own execs, including Mr. Lentz, admitted cannot be explained by floor mats and sticky pedal. Surely you cannot credibly attribute all of that to driver error, when there are documented cases of SUA in which no pedal was being pressed at all. You have a document with a picture of a tachometer with high RPMs and no one in the driver’s seat at all. And at your Shibetsu proving ground, your driver conducted a test with sherbet and gravel even, and the car did not pass. It revved without pedal input or sticky pedal. Other documented cases abound. What do you and your trolls have to say about these documented cases?

      • Charlene Blake

        So basically Toyota is still keeping quiet about its own internal concerns about electronic malfunctions in the ETCS?

        I personally don’t want to encounter these runaway Toyotas on the roads/highways. What can we, the public, do to demand more transparency? Hasn’t Toyota now agreed to be more responsive to its customers? Why isn’t NHTSA doing more?

  • Charlene Blake

    Trudy BALTAZAR has just written a book entitled A Road to Freedom: Strangers Restore Justice for an Innocent Man. She was instrumental in helping Koua Fong Lee in his quest to be freed from false imprisonment. I’ve downloaded the Kindle version of her book from Amazon.

    I want to personally thank her for her courageous effort. I look forward to reading her book to learn more about Mr. Lee’s heart-wrenching case. I understand that Mr. Lee has a case pending against Toyota. It is my hope that Toyota does right by him and does not allow him to suffer further. Time will tell whether or not Toyota will make amends or not.

    • Trudy Groppoli Baltazar

      I just now saw this post. The lawsuit against Toyota that Koua is involved in is scheduled to begin November 3, 2014 with Judge Ann Montgomery in Minneapolis Federal Courthouse. There are several parties in the suit against Toyota, American Family Insurance is one of them. The trial is scheduled to last two weeks. I’ll be updating and am hoping to attend as often as I was when Koua had his Evidentiary Hearing in 2010 which led to his release.

  • NewsCut rules require (1) everyone use their real name and (2).commenters shall not hurl personal insults at one another, and (3) a REAL email address must be provided.. Observe or be gone.

    • Charlene Blake

      Thank you for noting the insults by the anonymous poster.

    • Betsy Benjaminson

      Please note that mr. Disqus ….Qx does not appear to be using his real name. Could you please ask him to disclose it? Thanks! Have a nice day. Betsy.

  • Trudy Groppoli Baltazar

    If people really want to know the truth about the bugs, defects, and malfunctions in the embedded software source codes in toyota’s with electronic throttle, go to emebddedgurus dot com. There’s a heading titled “An Update on Toyota and Sudden Unintended Acceleration”. Once you get to the page, toward the bottom is a link to the court transcripts from Michael Barr’s 2-day testimony during the last wrongful death lawsuit that Toyota lost in Oct. 2013. Michael is an expert embedded software engr and he was given 20 months to view the source codes for toyota’s electronic throttle control.

    • Guest

      oops, I meant to say the trial in Oct, 2013.

  • Trudy Groppoli Baltazar

    I attended the Eveidentiary Hearing for Koua Fong Lee in St. Paul, MN in 2010 which resulted in his full pardon because he was proven innocent. I heard 11 drivers of the ’96 Camry (same as Koua’s car) and the ’95 Camry and they all had the exact same experience of UA and loss of brakes. Many of them had two feet on the brakes. Toyota claims driver error in many of these accidents, so I’d like to know what foot is on the accelerator when both feet are on the brakes? Toyota’s other claim was a floor matt issue, tell that to the families of the four who died (Monty Hardy, Wendy Akion, Sharon Ransom, and Hadassah Vance) after landing upside down in a pond Southlake, TX after the driver’s Toyota suddenly unintentionally accelerated and the driver couldn’t stop the car. Her floor matts were found in the trunk of the car by paramedics.

    • Charlene Blake

      Excellent point, Trudy! Can’t wait to read your book:)

  • Many comments in this thread were deleted because of a violation of terms of service. In addition, the email address supplied matched that on a database of email and data stolen by the Syrian Electronic Army in a break-in of Forbes.

    But beyond that, the inability of unwillingness to engage in an intelligent discussion of issues without hurling insults at other commenters will almost always get your comment deleted. A difference of opinion is fine, a flame war will never be tolerated.

  • Charlene Blake

    My guess is that Toyota doesn’t want any more emphasis on Koua Fong Lee’s heart-wrenching sudden unintended acceleration case. Why else would an anonymous poster by the name of “disqus” suddenly leave once detailed facts emerged here. The facts cited are credible as they come from within Toyota’s own internal documents and from evidence presented in legal proceedings.

    Thank you, Betsy, Trudy, and Parris, for proving that individuals can make a difference. The public appreciates your truth-seeking, justice-finding, and corporate conduct-revealing efforts! Your dedicated work on behalf of the rest of us is commendable! Awesome work which I personally hope continues!

  • Charlene Blake

    Shouldn’t someone be considering the points covered in Dr. Antony Anderson’s recent paper which address the NHTSA’s faulty determination that SUA was the result of driver pedal misapplication?

    http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6777269

    Shouldn’t someone be examining the electronic software shortcomings in the Toyota ETCS uncovered by computer expert, Michael Barr?

    http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1319903

  • Charlene Blake

    There remain some very tough questions for Toyota, the NHTSA, and the DOJ to answer:
    1) Why haven’t Professor David Gilbert’s and embedded systems expert Michael Barr’s findings of an electronic fault without adequate fail-safe in the Toyota ETCS been fully examined?
    2) Why hasn’t Dr. Antony Anderson’s logical debunking of NHTSA’s 1989 driver error determination of SUA been considered?
    3) Why haven’t the Toyota internal documents of Toyota Whistleblower, Betsy Benjaminson, been acknowledged and accepted as evidence in Toyota’s criminal investigation? Toyota engineers admit concern about the “ghost in the machine” and the unpredictability of the performance of the ETCS.
    4) Why are the Toyota owners both the field-testers and fail-safe applicators for their own vehicles’ questionably-designed ETCS?
    5) Most importantly, how many more deaths have to occur before someone takes charge of permanently eliminating the unacceptable risks to both the Toyota drivers and those they encounter on the roads and highways?

  • Adrienne Washburn

    I thought it only happen in movies, where a person is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, spent a long time in jail for it, and only to found out that it was an honest mistake by some people who didn’t place close to attention to the evidences. An <a href="http://www.johnsoninjurylaw.com/auto-accidents_Arizona_car_accident.html“>automobile accidents lawyer told me that although the man will be fully compensated, Koua Fong Lee can still file a lawsuit against those who wrongly convicted him, but knowing how the law works I don’t think he would get the justice he deserves; sad, but true.