Man Got Eight Years for Deaths From Accelerating Toyota

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

ABC News reports on the case of Koua Fong Lee, a Laotian immigrant serving eight years in a Minnesota prison for vehicular manslaughter. Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry, when he accelerated to 70-90 mph, ran two stop signs, then struck another car, killing three of its occupants. Lee says the car accelerated on its own, and testified that he exclaimed to his family that the car’s brakes weren’t working in the run-up to the crash. The family’s of the victims are joining the effort to win Lee’s release:

“I was angry for a moment, but when I came to my senses and thought about it, I didn’t understand it,” said Quincy Adams whose son and grandson were among those killed. “I can’t believe that a guy with his pregnant wife, a kid in a car seat, his father-in-law and a brother-in-law in the car, would purposely be speeding up this ramp like that,” said Bridgette Trice, whose seven-year old daughter later died from injuries suffered in the accident.

She said the news stories about Toyota’s problems led her to reconsider what happened in the accident that killed her daughter.

“Maybe there is something to what Mr. Lee said was going on with him in his car, that he couldn’t stop, that he tried his hardest, and the brakes, that his car wouldn’t stop,” said Ms. Trice.

“He’s never wavered on his story that his brakes were bad,” she added.

The 1996 Camry isn’t part of Toyota’s recent massive recall, but it was subject to a separate recall in the 1990s due to sudden acceleration related to the cruise control feature. That recall was not introduced at Lee’s trial. The article notes that there have been 17 acceleration complaints about the model Lee wasdriving, though it doesn’t say if that’s an unusually high number in comparison to other makes and models.

If the car was defective, Lee was of course wrongly convicted and imprisoned, and deserves not only release, but a hefty payout from both Toyota and the state of Minnesota. He was convicted in 2006, and we’re now learning that both Toyota and federal regulators knew about the acceleration problem as early as 2003.

But it’s also worth asking why prosecutors decided to hit Lee with such a severe charge in the first place. He wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. He wasn’t drag racing or showing signs of road rage. As noted, he was driving his family—including his pregnant wife and child—home from church when the accident occurred. The article doesn’t indicate any theory from the prosecution as to why Lee would have suddenly, willfully driven so recklessly, but under Minnesota law they didn’t have to. This is the problem with felony crimes that don’t require the state to show intent. The Minnesota law requires only  a show of”reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others,” which could likely have been satisfied merely by showing how fast Lee was driving.

Cultural bias may have also had something to do with it, too. Lee is Hmong. As a commenter at the ABC News site notes, Lee’s trial came months after the highly-publicized trial of a Hmong man who massacred three Wisconsin hunters in 2004. Now one state over, you have a Hmong man who took out three people while driving well in excess of the speed limit. Lee also testified through a translator, and according to the ABC article his trial judge expressed doubt about Lee’s remorse. Maybe Lee really wasunremorseful , though it also seems possible that an emotion like remorse could be expressed differently in different cultures or be lost in translation.

Whatever their reasons, the prosecutors seemed set on making Lee pay a heavy price for the three deaths, and paid too little consideration to his actual level of criminal culpability.

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56 Responses to “Man Got Eight Years for Deaths From Accelerating Toyota”

  1. #1 |  Jon Gray | 

    I think this is a case of extreme-over-charging meets unknown-potentially-exculpatory-evidence with a healthy dash of racial bias thrown in. Unless there was something else going on here, and it looks like there wasn’t, the prosecutor in charge of that decision should be ashamed of themselves for that.

    I think the statute itself, which I’m not specifically familiar with, is probably a reasonable one, as reckless disregard has been an accepted mental state in criminal culpability for quite some time. There are actions that fall under that which are widely accepted as crimes.

    I think Toyota will pay up, though it would be interesting to know if there’s any proof to actually show that’s what caused it. The state, however, I’d be more wary of paying much out. For one, he didn’t present the defense, and two, prosecutorial discretion isn’t required.

  2. #2 |  John Jenkins | 

    Reckless Disregard for human life has always been one of the avenues to a conviction for murder in the second degree, going back to the common law (it’s referred to as wanton conduct).

    The statute in question reads, in pertinent part:

    A person is guilty of criminal vehicular homicide or operation and may be sentenced as provided in subdivision 1a, if the person causes injury to or the death of another as a result of operating a motor vehicle:

    (1) in a grossly negligent manner;

    The logic behind this statement is puzzling:

    This is the problem with felony crimes that don’t require the state to show intent.

    Under this theory, if I take a shotgun into a crowded room and start shooting randomly and someone accidentally dies, I should not be convicted of a felony (presumably a misdemeanor is okay). Or, what if I, without intending to harm anyone, drive onto a sidewalk, killing a pedestrian? If you’re willing to infer intent, then you’re really just applying something like the reckless disregard standard on your own terms.

    This is a case where the defense attorney did a poor job (failing to introduce evidence of the stuck accelerator) and the state proved every element of a crime (maybe they should have exercised discretion here, but they chose not to). You can’t use this particular case as an indictment of every crime where reckless disregard for human life is taken as a standard, just because the state successfully carried its burden and the defense didn’t rebut it.

    The fault here belongs to the jury, not the statute, who found that the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent.

  3. #3 |  Hci | 

    The term “Lao” is generally preferable to “Laotian”. See “Laos” in Wikipedia.

  4. #4 |  Radley Balko | 

    I didn’t necessarily mean that negligent homicide laws shouldn’t exist at all, but they’re too broad and too easily abused.

    So I don’t know that you should have to show he intended to kill someone, but the state should at least have to show evidence that he had opportunity to consider the safety others before disregarding it.

    In this case, what if the car wasn’t defective, but Lee had inadvertently stepped on the gas instead of the brake? Clearly he’s still negligent, but he shouldn’t be held criminally responsible, and certainly shouldn’t be convicted of a felony.

    On the other hand, if he were drag racing, I’d be okay with the felony charge, even though he still probably didn’t consciously intend to hurt anyone. Engaging in drag racing would require some consideration that what you’re about to do could harm someone else.

  5. #5 |  Chris Mallory | 

    Preferred by who?

  6. #6 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Lee also testified through a translator, and according to the ABC article his trial judge expressed doubt about Lee’s remorse. Maybe Lee really wasunremorseful , though it also seems possible that an emotion like remorse could be expressed differently in different cultures or be lost in translation.

    Or maybe the fact that there’s no real remorse to express since he didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. If he’s correct (and given the circumstances there’s no reason to doubt his story) then he’s as much a victim- along for a ride in an uncontrollable car- as anybody else.

  7. #7 |  Jesse | 

    Here is what Wikipedia said, Hci.

    “The usual adjectival form is “Lao,” e.g., “the Lao economy,” not the “Laotian” economy—although “Laotian” is used to describe the people of Laos to avoid confusion with the Lao ethnic group.”

    Seems it was used right… or at least the source you quoted doesn’t really back up what you said. Anyone else on this?

  8. #8 |  Mike Leatherwood | 

    “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the defendant is Hmong. The state rests.”

  9. #9 |  Jon Gray | 

    @Jesse

    I feel like Gran Torino would speak to this.

  10. #10 |  johnl | 

    It’s impossible that at any point any adult, the prosecutor, the judge, or the jury thought that it had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had intended to drive that fast. Shows the contempt many judges have for their responsibilities.

    Even if the car had not been defective, and it was driver error, a typical reaction to accidental acceleration is to slam on the gas.

  11. #11 |  Jon Gray | 

    @Radley

    I maintain that what you’re asking regarding intent probably isn’t possible, but your point is well-taken and I see what you’re saying. I think we can both fully agree it’s a crappy situation that should have resulted in more prosecutorial discretion. Too bad things like that don’t result in more prosecutors getting voted out of office.

  12. #12 |  hattio | 

    John Jenkins states;

    “Under this theory, if I take a shotgun into a crowded room and start shooting randomly and someone accidentally dies, I should not be convicted of a felony (presumably a misdemeanor is okay). Or, what if I, without intending to harm anyone, drive onto a sidewalk, killing a pedestrian? If you’re willing to infer intent, then you’re really just applying something like the reckless disregard standard on your own terms.”

    Actually, in the first example the person would clearly also be guilty under the standard that is just above recklessly, ie., knowingly. In the second case an argument could also be made that knowingly fits (though I wouldn’t agree with it). Your point about the traditional definition of Murder 2 is well taken, but there has to be a middle ground between requiring either knowing or intentional mens rea and allowing the prosecutors complete discretion on the reckless element.

  13. #13 |  hattio | 

    John Jenkins also says;

    “This is a case where the defense attorney did a poor job (failing to introduce evidence of the stuck accelerator) and the state proved every element of a crime (maybe they should have exercised discretion here, but they chose not to). ”

    Actually, I would assume the defense attorney introduced evidence through his client’s testimony and maybe through the other family members who were present. What he didn’t do is have the car analyzed. But, the chances are he really couldn’t. Cars are often impounded and disposed of so quickly that having them saved for forensic testimony would be extremely difficult (and who knows when the defense attorney was hired/assigned, the car may have been destroyed by then). Of course, even if he had the car tested, the prosecution could have claimed that any defect was caused by the accident rather than pre-existing.

  14. #14 |  John Jenkins | 

    The evidence in this case would have been the acceleration problems with Toyotas going back several years. That’s relevant and probative, therefore admissible evidence and would have the effect of supporting the defendant’s claims. Frankly, the guy should get a new trial on a Strickland claim for that oversight alone. The defense attorney failed to do an adequate investigation.

    Distinctions among MPC levels of intent are not relevant to my point (which Radley acknowledged) that the original statement was too broad in its effect.

    I also don’t think your use of knowing works in that situation and you could easily change the hypo to account for it (e.g., I take a shotgun that I think is unloaded point it at someone as a prank and pull the trigger and fire, killing him. I lacked intent, I did not knowingly shoot him, yet I was negligent in failing to be sure the gun was unloaded).

    It’s not the existence of reckless disregard as a standard that’s the problem.

  15. #15 |  M | 

    Wouldn’t requiring them to show intent to win a conviction make it like the hate crime laws that so many people love to bash because they’re criminalizing thought?

  16. #16 |  Jon Gray | 

    @M

    I’ll assume you’re saying that both showing of criminal mental states and hate crime statutes impose an equal burden on the state and an equal criminality on the person committing the crime, and thus are logically the same.

    The thought “I want to kill that guy because he’s black” and “I want to target practice with my rifle on this crowded street” are two entirely different thoughts that are being criminalized. The former thought is two-pronged: (1) intent to harm and (2) reason for harm. The latter criminalized thought looks at only prong (1). I think where people have the biggest objection to hate crime legislation is that it puts certain groups in special categories that give one greater protection than the other and that there’s too great a chance that a party is punished for thoughts and statements that otherwise are unrelated to their crime, ie being a white supremacist and killing a minority for non-race related reasons. While that might not be likely, the criminal law wallows in the muck of the unlikely and it should stay that way.

  17. #17 |  Some Guy | 

    This is simple: a conventional (non-hybrid) car’s engine will not overwhelm its brakes unless those brakes are in extremely poor shape. Don’t believe me? If you have an automatic, but it in drive, put one foot on the brake and one on the gas. Press both. You won’t move. With a stick, get moving and brake as hard as you can with your foot on the gas.

    Stopping distances will increase, but the car will stop.
    This is the same stupidity that hurt Audi in the 80s, and it’s just as absurd now as it was then.

  18. #18 |  Some Guy | 

    To clarify-If the guy’s car did foul up, then he’s guilty of being a shitty driver without enough brains to put the car in neutral. His claim that he was mashing the brakes doesn’t hold water (again, unless something was catastrophically broken, and even then, brakes are designed to be essentially fail-safe). That doesn’t mean he should be in jail forever. But the “the car just took off!” defense is absurd in this case.*

    *It would be less so in a hybrid, with it’s weird regenerative braking system, or a car with push-button ignition. Even then-PUT THE DAMN CAR IN NEUTRAL.

  19. #19 |  Jon Gray | 

    Some Guy said:

    “he’s guilty of being a shitty driver without enough brains to put the car in neutral.”

    If being a bad driver and lacking brains were criminal I think the internet would be a lonely, lonely ghost town.

  20. #20 |  SJE | 

    And the other shame of this is I am sure more people died after Koua Fong Lee’s trial. If they had taken his defense seriously, they might have identified the problem earlier.

  21. #21 |  SJE | 

    And the other shame of this is I am sure more people died after Koua Fong Lee’s trial. If they had taken his defense seriously, the authorities might have earlier identified the problem with the Camry.

  22. #22 |  Some Guy | 

    Jon- As I said, I don’t think he should be in jail, and certainly not for 8 years. But I wouldn’t cry too hard if he lost his license, or if he faced a civil suit.
    Of course, I’m on record as saying things about drivers’ licensing that require me to turn in my decoder ring.

  23. #23 |  bloodstar | 

    Some Guy said:

    “he’s guilty of being a shitty driver without enough brains to put the car in neutral.”

    really? you’re expecting someone who finds his car accelerating suddenly and sharply to figure out in a matter of moments that he needs to put the car in neutral? why not simply turn the car off and not blow the engine out? your hands are nearer the ignition than the shifter.

    Having had a serpentine belt break while driving down the interstate, it took me at least 3- 5 seconds to, while keeping an eye on the road, figure out what just broke, get over, kill the ignition and get to the side of the road. That’s with a car that wasn’t accelerating unexpectedly, nor in heavy traffic.

    I don’t know the exact circumstances but if it’s a sunday late morning early afternoon after church, the roads are more congested, so the guy’s going to have several seconds of time just trying to figure out what’s happening as he tries to maintain control of the car.

    In this case, I’d be much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the person than to simply the person sucks at driving and deserves to be pilloried for it. Particularly since we don’t have the exact facts of the case to to see how many seconds he had to identify and react.

  24. #24 |  Bloodstar » I Wonder how much Toyota is Going to Owe this Guy? | 

    [...] HT: The Agitator [...]

  25. #25 |  Ben | 

    Some Guy is correct about the breaking vs acceleration physics. I’ve had this argument before with people, and even took a buddy for a ride in my car to prove it. A “runaway acceleration” is only possible if you’re not hitting the brakes or if your brakes are extremely worn, to the point of metal-on-metal grinding. All accidents caused by a sticking accelerator are due to driver error. Every single one.

    With that being said, I agree this guy still doesn’t belong in jail.

  26. #26 |  Berck | 

    In addition to the fact that the car would have stopped when he stepped on the brakes, regardless of the throttle being wide open or not, I’ll also add this: He could have simply turned the key off. This always works. If you can’t figure that out, you don’t belong behind the wheel of a car, and you’re probably guilty of negligent homicide.

  27. #27 |  Jon Gray | 

    @Ben

    This could be totally out-of-my-ass, but couldn’t the computer system communicate “ACCELERATE” even while you’re hitting the brakes and trying to tell it “Oh holy shit, stop!”?

  28. #28 |  Berck | 

    The brakes and throttle on a 1996 Camry are not computer controlled.

  29. #29 |  Michaelk42 | 

    And yet people still usually get fines if anything for killing someone on a bike with their car.

  30. #30 |  Roy | 

    “If you have an automatic, put it in drive, put one foot on the brake and one on the gas. Press both. You won’t move.”

    True, but then again, that’s not exactly what happened, is it.

    Try this instead:

    Get out on a deserted stretch of highway. Accelerate your car up to about 60mph. Now, simultaneously press both the accelerator and the brakes as hard as you can and see how long it takes you to even slow down.

    That’s the issue, you see. While it’s true that brakes in good working order will hold an already stationary car, they will not immediately stop an already moving and accelerating car. Indeed, it will take a much longer time for the braking action to have an effect because of both the engine torque plus the inertia of the automobile and it’s contents. That is, after all, why, in normal driving conditions, the faster we go, the greater the stopping distance we must maintain.

    I can definitely see how a driver surprised by a sudden uncommanded acceleration while in traffic could cause a serious accident.

    And while sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer, it’s easy to say: “put it in neutral”, or: “shut off the ignition”. Not so easy when you’re surprised in traffic. (…besides which, most cars lock the steering column whenever the ignition is turned off.)

    I think the whole affair was a miscarriage of justice.

  31. #31 |  SJE | 

    Michaelk42: spot on. If the guy had killed a cyclist, or a pedestrian, he would probably have been able to get off. In a lot of U.S. states “I didnt see him” is like the get out of jail free card, even if the victim was 7 ft tall and spouting flames.

  32. #32 |  Roy | 

    “And yet people still usually get fines if anything for killing someone on a bike with their car.” ***

    So let’s see…

    A bicyclist runs a red light in front of me – very likely because about 75% of the cyclists seem to think the rules of the road don’t apply to them** – and try as I might, I can’t avoid running him over. I should be… (check one.)

    1 – Prosecuted and imprisoned.

    2 – Fined a million dollars or more.

    3 – Lose my house, my job etc.

    4 – Hung by the neck until dead.

    5 – Counseled because – even though it wasn’t my fault, and I tried everything I could to avoid hitting him, and even though I helped chlorinate the gene pool, I still feel very bad about what happened.

    ** – Because of a high profile bike vs car accident in our area, one of our local teevee stations did an expose on the percentages. They found that during the past two years, over 75% of all bike vs car accidents in our area were ruled the fault of the cyclist.

    *** If by the word “bike” you mean motorcycle, then ignore this rant because I agree with you.

  33. #33 |  RP | 

    “Get out on a deserted stretch of highway. Accelerate your car up to about 60mph. Now, simultaneously press both the accelerator and the brakes as hard as you can and see how long it takes you to even slow down. ”

    Actually, Car and Driver did just that with a current Camry (much more horsepower than the ’96 model), and it took a few more feet to stop than when it wasn’t floored. I think it was four feet.

    They were able to slow it down from 120 mph as well.

    Like most, I think the guy shouldn’t be in jail. But it’s totally stupid to argue that he couldn’t stop the car. Read the news articles . . . he was going faster at impact than when he allegedly hit the brakes. That’s not physically possible — unless he hit the accelerator instead of the brakes.

    Which he did. You don’t need to understand more than simple physics to know that for certain.

  34. #34 |  RP | 

    “And while sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer, it’s easy to say: “put it in neutral”, or: “shut off the ignition”. Not so easy when you’re surprised in traffic. (…besides which, most cars lock the steering column whenever the ignition is turned off.)”

    Agreed on shutting off the ignition — bad solution.

    That said, and I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I don’t want to share the road with people who aren’t prepared to cope with an emergency situation. I agree that many people can’t, but that doesn’t make it right.

    I hate government, and I think most of the rules/laws governing our roads are silly at best. Still, I think that we make it far too easy for scarily incapable drivers to be on the roads.

    In my view, if you can’t cope with ice, snow, a stuck accelerator, a blowout, or heck, if you can’t keep right except to pass, you shouldn’t be driving.

    I still think this guy shouldn’t be in jail — I don’t see how his actions could possibly be described as criminal. But I also think this guy shouldn’t be allowed to drive. At all. At the very least until he proves he can cope in emergency situations.

  35. #35 |  RP | 

    “I think Toyota will pay up, though it would be interesting to know if there’s any proof to actually show that’s what caused it. The state, however, I’d be more wary of paying much out. For one, he didn’t present the defense, and two, prosecutorial discretion isn’t required.”

    I guess I’ll continue to beat various parts of the dead horse, but what, exactly, should Toyota have to pay for? Maybe you’re simply saying that Toyota will cave and pay, and maybe that will happen.

    Still . . .

    Leaving aside the notion that stupid jurors and stupid judges will award damages for just about anything, look at the technical issue at hand: on a 96 Camry, and really, on any car without drive by wire controls, there’s only three ways you can get what drivers might perceive to be unintended acceleration . . .

    1. There is a mechanical failure (like a broken motor mount or the like) which causes the mechanical linkage to truly become stuck. Rare, but not unheard of in older cars (1970′s models and older). Extraordinarily rare in anything later.

    2. The driver mistakes the accelerator pedal for the brake. This is what happened with the Audi problem in the 80′s, it’s what happened with the Jeeps in the 90′s. Some have argued that pedal placement is to blame, and maybe it is, at least partially, but is that truly something to hold a car company to blame for? Shouldn’t people evaluate for themselves whether their feet are too big, or if the pedals don’t fall in an instinctive position?

    3. A floor mat moves and gets wedged such that it keeps the accelerator pedal down.

    I’ve had number 3 happen in several cars I’ve owned, including my current car which is nicer than cars I’ve owned previously and which has lovely mat hooks to keep the mats in place. It happens . . .

    I just don’t see where 2 or 3 ought to result in monetary product liability judgements. If it comes to it, I hope (wish) Toyota gives the gov’t the bird and refuses to pay anthing. People ought to take responsibility for themselves, make sure their cars fit them and are maintained properly (including having their floor mats in the right place), and, failing those, they should be able to cope when something unexpected happens.

    Of course, I fully expect Toyota to be further villified as this story gains momentum. This guy will be exonerated in the court of public opinion because everybody knows that Toyota is utterly indifferent to public safety, and where once they stood for unicorns and peace and love, they now stand for profit, which is obviously one step above standing for child porn.

  36. #36 |  Jon Gray | 

    @RP

    You hit the nail on the head. I’m assuming Toyota will cave and pay because, as you know, they aren’t exactly in a good place in terms of public relations right now. I am skeptical that any solid proof could be produced, but they’ll pony up anyway.

  37. #37 |  SamK | 

    I disabled the cruise control system on a 90-something Camry for a 17 year old girl who was freaking out at the mall once. It was stuck in “accelerate like mad” mode and she thought she was going to die before she stopped it and left it in park. I also recall my mother’s caprice station wagon accelerating uncontrollably on the freeway when I was about ten. We put it in neutral and shut off the ignition.

    Note 2 things:

    This sort of thing happens even without computer control or driver error.

    Even a flighty and, seriously, dumb as a box of rocks and scared as hell teenage girl figured out how to stop in a crowded parking lot.

    All that said I don’t know the particulars. He may have had only seconds to realize the seriousness of the problem, make a mistake (hit accelerator), and try to correct that mistake. Might fall under “shit happens”. If, on the other hand, he had the amount of time involved such as in that 911 tape of the state cop getting killed then I’m decidedly unhappy with him.

    Finally, physics works, yes, and brakes stop cars….but keep this scenario in mind: On an extreme grade you experience uncontrolled acceleration. Scared, you apply the brakes and release, noting that the vehicle continues to accelerate (pretty common to “test” the brakes I would think). Repeated attempts later you realize you’re in trouble and brake hard but by now you’ve overheated your braking system and the extremely extended braking distance required (mountains man, they really are a bitch) shreds your overheated pads. You now cannot brake to a stop while the accelerator is engaged and you are zooming downhill. Yes, by now you should have figured out other things like the key and the shift to neutral, but if you’ve ever raced you know stock passenger car pads are utter shit under heat loads and fall apart pretty easily and if you’ve ever driven in the mountains you understand how a nasty grade can affect your braking distance.

    Lacking very specific, intimate details of the scene I’m not going to blame this guy for not getting his car to stop fast enough because in the wrong situation even those of us with mad skills behind the wheel could get it wrong…and I’ve gotten too old to have mad skills anymore.

  38. #38 |  The Skeptical Juror | 

    As others have already pointed out, brakes win. Period. And not just on cars; they win on airplanes as well. It is standard practice to run up the aircraft engines while the brakes are on. The plane doesn’t accelerate down the runway. It just sits there until the pilot releases the brakes. That’s because brakes win.

    Unintended accelerations suggest a simultaneous failure of the accelerator and the brakes, and that simply doesn’t happen. Runaway accelerations are human factor events. We can comment all we want on how people “should” react to these events, but in reality they react as the driver did in this case: they press harder on what they think is the brake.

    I fault the guy only for being human. Had I been defending him, that would have been my defense. I could not in good conscience have offered the “demon car” defense. It would be bad for my client, as evidenced by the outcome of this case.

    Reliance on bad science is also a poor strategy for libertarians and others opposed to the burgeoning power of the state. Think global warming. Think bad forensics. Think Cameron Todd Willingham. The list is endless.

    If we want to be on the right side of the argument, we need to be on the right side of the science.

  39. #39 |  Some Guy | 

    The steering only locks when you turn the key all the way off. Turn it back one notch, and you’re fine.

  40. #40 |  Henry Bowman | 

    The guy didn’t hit his brakes, that’s nearly certain. He may well have hit the accelerator. The engine will stall if the brakes are applied.

    None of the above has much to do with the sentence, though.

  41. #41 |  RP | 

    “Finally, physics works, yes, and brakes stop cars….but keep this scenario in mind: On an extreme grade you experience uncontrolled acceleration. Scared, you apply the brakes and release, noting that the vehicle continues to accelerate (pretty common to “test” the brakes I would think). Repeated attempts later you realize you’re in trouble and brake hard but by now you’ve overheated your braking system and the extremely extended braking distance required (mountains man, they really are a bitch) shreds your overheated pads. You now cannot brake to a stop while the accelerator is engaged and you are zooming downhill. Yes, by now you should have figured out other things like the key and the shift to neutral, but if you’ve ever raced you know stock passenger car pads are utter shit under heat loads and fall apart pretty easily and if you’ve ever driven in the mountains you understand how a nasty grade can affect your braking distance.”

    Correct on all points, and well said.

    You’ve articulated a completely valid outlier scenario in which a stuck accelerator could result in overwhelmed brakes (irrelevent side note — I drive I-90 from Washington State to Montana to see relatives several times per year, so I pay close attention to runoff places for this very reason).

    Still, I’d say even with the shit pads you describe (which is true), most cars will slow down or at least stabilize for quite a while before the brakes go away completely.

    And, none of the elements in this scenario apply here. He wasn’t on a steep grade, he accelerated (by his own account) when he “hit the brakes”, and his throttle wasn’t stuck mechanically (there could have been a floor mat problem, but I’d argue that that is still his responsibility).

    How do I know the throttle wasn’t stuck mechanically? Because the factors that make that happen almost certainly don’t apply here. I’d bet my house that the reason your Caprice wagon had a problem when you were young was due to a broken motor mount. The mounts in older American V-8 cars were perpendicular to the motion of the throttle shaft, and one breaking could result in an engine pivoting up on the remaining mount (my first car, a 67 Impala I got when I was 16, had this problem, and we used to get a kick out of forcing the throttle to stick) and binding the throttle shaft. This problem would be virtually impossible on a 96 Camry due to the location of the mounts.

    This guy hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Not criminal, but negligent, and certainly enough that Toyota doesn’t deserve to be further vilified.

  42. #42 |  SJE | 

    #32@Roy

    There are too many inconsiderate cyclists who act like jerks. At the same time, there are a lot of cyclists and pedestrians who are acting entirely properly, within the law, and who get killed and almost nothing happens. The number of pedestrians and cyclists who are killed every year by cars dwarfs the number of deaths associated with Toyotas problems.

    A few months ago a man in Maryland was riding on a country road, during daylight, with the sun at his back, and was hit and killed by a student who was driving with fogged up windshields and was rooting around in the car looking for something when she hit him. She said she didn’t see him, and was fined about $300.

  43. #43 |  SJE | 

    There was also the highschool student who was crossing at a crosswalk, at 330pm, and was hit and killed by a driver. He has not been charged.

    My point is that the focus on sticky accellerators, people on their cell phones (or whatever new media talking point) ignores the much bigger cause of death, which is bad drivers.

  44. #44 |  Michael G | 

    Hell! I would not have any remorse either! The people who should have it, are those ones whose behavior is being exposed. They needed to put away an innocent man for a car defect that had been previously described (and, now, ignored for seven years, at least)!

    My remorse would be anger if a defect, in the car, I was driving, caused me to lose control, resulting in some other souls loss of life!? Especially if it was a little child! I would have, possibly even been suicidal! I understand that killing another human is not easy for most of us to consider. But, I would never have called the regret I felt, “remorse!” I would call it heartache!

  45. #45 |  Michael G | 

    In addition, since many ignition keys now cannot be switched to the off position in emergencies, like this, without locking the steering wheel, it leaves fewer options for the driver. I have turned off my car a couple of times when the accelerator got stuck! I never had a problem because I was able to maintain the control of the vehicle until I was able to stop, (older car 57 Chevy) with functioning brakes.

    SJE,

    It is easy to judge the ability of the driver, here, in retrospect. But, I find your argument a little more on the judgmental side than that of a factual review. Should we take all of the drivers off of the road, except you? None of the rest of us are perfect. LOL!

  46. #46 |  SJE | 

    Not at all, Michael G.

    But, when a driver hits and kills another person there is at least a prima facie case that the driver was not acting with due care. However, under current law, punishment is very minor, and serious conviction is very difficult unless (a) intentional (b) very egregious (like great speed, drag racing etc), (d) driving under the influence or (e) using a cell phone or texting. Thus, there is no incentive drive with due care, like slowing down when the conditions are bad.

  47. #47 |  Roy | 

    “…ignores the much bigger cause of death, which is bad drivers.”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you here except that you are ignoring the fact that in at least one study the problem was not bad drivers, but bad cyclists.

    I realize that anecdote is not plural for data. However, I have my own experience with a cyclist that very nearly resulted in a fatality. Here’s what happened…

    My wife and I were exiting a parking lot onto a city street. As I accelerated down the block, I observed that the traffic light at the intersection just ahead of me was green. Just as I entered that intersection – remember, my light was green the entire time – a cyclist came off of the cross-street sidewalk right in front of me. I was only going about 25 – 30mph, (35 zone), but still I had no time to even stomp the brake before I clobbered that bicycle. My wife screamed as I turned the van sideways in the middle of the intersection getting it stopped. I was certain I had just killed someone because I had run fully over the top of that bike. It was utterly destroyed. Pieces of it were scattered from one side of that intersection to the other. Luckily, no one was even hurt. The cyclist – a boy about 12 years old – had enough presence of mind to fling himself backwards off of the rear of the bicycle just before the collision. His bicycle was totally ruined, but he had barely a scratch.

    Now – if I had killed him, what then? Is there a prima facie case that I was not acting with due care? Would I have deserved to have had my life ruined because of the mistake of a 12 year old boy?

    What if the cyclist had been an adult. Would that have changed things?

    They call them “accidents” for a reason. And things happen all the time that could cause a fatal accident – things that are beyond the control of the driver of an automobile or truck. And in any collision between an automobile and a bicycle, the bicycle will lose – every time.

    I think we all agree that the case of Mr. Lee is a gross miscarriage of justice. My point is that the attitude that any fatality means that “…there is a prima facie case that the driver was not acting with due care” coupled with the attitude that “somebody has to pay” is why this sort of miscarriage happens and continues to happen.

  48. #48 |  Troy | 

    I’m more worried about teenagers and elderly drivers than I am about sticky accelerators. They hit or pull and out in front of people all the time but no one gets to excited about it.

  49. #49 |  SJE | 

    I’m with you Roy. First time I spanked my son was for running into the street.

    My concern is with the lax enforcement or punishment in which a driver runs over a pedestrian crossing at a light, at a crosswalk, or a cyclist riding carefully and in a straight line in the direction of traffic in the middle of the day. There are too many instances where the pedestrian, cyclist, or motorcyclist, was doing everything we ask of them, safe and legal, and is killed and there is no repercussion. The real problem, IMO, is that MD judges by contributory negligence.

    All that needs to be shown is that the other party had some blame, even 1%, which is very easy.

    The only way for prosecution to overcome this is to show violation of a specific law e.g. drinking, cell phone use, etc. The problem is that we then fetishize specific activities, whether or not they actually cause crashes (e.g. if you are parked in a car with a beer in your hand, they can arrest you). This leads to a loss of liberty, without an increase in public safety.

  50. #50 |  Roy | 

    Okay, SJE. I do see your point. And again, I don’t completely disagree with you. The problem is that in the absence of clear negligence, what else can we do? I don’t think it serves justice to ruin two lives when there is no clear fault on the part of the driver.

    All of these cases should be dealt with on their individual merit. Otherwise we have what amounts to a public lynching of some poor sod just because he got caught up in circumstances that were beyond his ability to control.

    Now, if you want to rant about the driving habits of the general public… Well, I drive for a living, so I would be right there with you. It would make for a long but very entertaining comment thread.

  51. #51 |  Matt G | 

    I had a throttle stick on me once, while driving my mother’s Ford LTD II. I was a teenager, and was terrified of wrecking her car, and when I geared down it just revved faster so that I was afraid of burning the engine out. I got up to about 100 before coming to my senses and reducing speed. I rode the brakes all the way to my destination, and arrived in a cloud of hot, smoking, brake pads.

    But the car would stop. The decision to keep driving it was mine. If I had wrecked it, the fault would be mine.

  52. #52 |  staghounds | 

    “They needed to put away an innocent man for a car defect that had been previously described …”

    Who did?

    A jury of twelve people decided, beyond reasonable doubt, unanimously, that this character recklessly killed three (Black) people.

    He had a lawyer. He had the right to present, or not present, a defence. Apparently everyone, including himself speaking through his lawyer, agreed that he hit the accelerator rather than the brake:

    http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/11545131.html

    I’m a prosecutor by profession, but this man had as fair a trial as they come. He ran into the back of a stopped car, in daylight, on a straight road, in clear weather, after running through two stop signs, at between 71 and 91 miles an hour.

    That is as reckless as it gets.

  53. #53 |  Bill | 

    Only one to correct this.

    Let EVERY prosecutor that falsely accuses someone, and is discovered later to aided & abetted that accusation, pay up the same penalty he lobbied for the person falsely accused by him…. in this case 8 years.

    Watch these false prosecutions and innocent lives & families ruined, all over this once-great country drop to ZERO. These prosecutors never had anything to lose by accusing others falsely.

    Injustice in America will never disappear until this risk is implemented for prosecutors, cops, & judges. So-called ‘immunity’ is the cause of this. False Accusations will NEVER disappear until they have some skin to lose in the game, and they know it.

  54. #54 |  sharonsj | 

    When I heard about his conviction, I also thought it might be due to his ethnic origin. Then I had an argument with a friend about what to do it this happened to one of us. She would have turned off the ignition right away–but you’re right, you would then have a terrible time trying to steer. I would have downshifted into D1 and, if that didn’t immediately slow the car, I would have gone into neutral and finally turned off the ignition. The bottom line is that we don’t know how we would react in such a situation.

  55. #55 |  Fools | 

    It’s real simple. If we can believe the car took off by itself (and not because he failed to attach his floor mats properly), he’s still guilty because he’s too incompetent to shut off the engine, pull/stomp on the e-brake, stomp on his standard brakes or turn the car into something else like a wall or parked cars.

    The guy just didn’t have the skills to be on the road, period.

  56. #56 |  Joseph beasley | 

    I have a 96 camry,
    That model is not relevant too the previous recalls
    Unlike new camrys, the 96-01 engines used a mechanical throttle advance

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