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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jailed Toyota driver deserves punitive damages

If anyone ever deserved a punitive damage award, it's Koua Fong Lee, the financially-challenged immigrant who was falsely imprisoned for two years after his Toyota Camry sped out of control, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. Amidst publicity regarding Toyota's problems with sudden unintended acceleration, charges were finally dropped, and Lee was released. That's all well and good.


As Lee weighed his legal options, something very strange took place. Rather than pursue a separate lawsuit against Toyota, Lee joined the lawsuit launched by other victims of the accident in exchange for forfeiting his right to claim punitive damages. I was puzzled at the time, and remain even more puzzled now that the Recall King - prompted by a jury's guilty verdict in an Oklahoma sudden unintended acceleration case - is rushing to reach a "global settlement" involving all sudden unintended acceleration cases.

Toyota has one whopper of an interest in not allowing juries to determine punitive damages. This was demonstrated in the Oklahoma case when Toyota immediately settled the matter after the guilty verdict was returned. It boils down to millions of dollars worth of "settlement" versus the risk of billions of dollars worth of punitive. The jury in Oklahoma - impressed with expert testimony (not to mention 150 feet of skid marks from the plaintiff's tires) - was fed up with Toyota's shenanigans, stating that Toyota acted with reckless disregard. Not surprising that the Recall King didn't want those folks assessing punitive damages in a death case.

So if the jury in Oklahoma was fed up, wonder what a jury's response would likely be regarding multiple deaths and injuries, and a Toyota driver who wound up in prison for two years before finally being cleared of all charges. A lawsuit from Lee - including the prospect of punitive damages - would have indeed been risky business for the Recall King.

Lee's case had already made headlines due to the horrific nature of the accident. And as Toyota's problems with sudden unintended acceleration continued to draw public attention, an imprisoned Toyota driver claiming that his Camry suddenly sped out of control was an ever-increasing liability for the Recall King. Lee has never wavered on that crucial point. Prison isn't pretty - Lee has recurring nightmares - and the specter of a jury one day assessing punitive damages was a ghost to be reckoned with. Lee's case weighed heavily in a D.A.'s decision to drop charges against a Lexus driver.

Lee's case - still not resolved - raises troubling questions. Not only about Toyota (now being allowed to buy its way out of a federal criminal investigation), but about a legal system that imprisons penniless immigrants on trumped-up charges, is forced to admit the error, and then protects corporate interests by taking away the right to seek punitive damages.

Something is heinously wrong with this picture.