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


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.