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The farce after the comedy and the tragedy

Four years ago Koua Fong Lee killed three Minnesotans when he rammed his 1996 Toyota Camry into the rear of another car at the Snelling Avenue exit of Interstate Highway 94 in St. Paul. Lee’s car careened into the other car somewhere between 70 and 90 miles per hour and Lee was, not unreasonably, convicted of negligent vehicular homicide.

Lee’s particular Toyota model was never part of the controversy over the alleged unintended acceleration of certain models of Toyota cars. No mechanical problem was found with the car after the accident. The trial judge nevertheless granted Lee a new trial on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel after the Toyota controversy seemed to lend some credibility to Lee’s account of how the accident happened. Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner declined to prosecute the case again. Lee is now free once more to drive the city streets.

Unbelievably, to my knowledge, no one other than me has asked Gaertner why she threw in the towel on the case. In comments she made about the case before a local lawyers’ group this past October, Gaertner made it clear how much she disliked being asked around town about Lee’s eight-year sentence (a sentence the prosecutor had requested after Lee’s conviction). Wasn’t the sentence too harsh? Prosecuting crimes can really be a bitch; it may not always be the best way to win friends and influence people.

Gaertner said she stood behind the case she originally brought against Lee after deliberating over it for a year after the accident and taking heat about the delay from the local chapter of the NAACP; the deceased victims of Lee’s negligence were all black. Gaertner also said the state legislature should revisit or clarify the law against negligent vehicular homicide. In response to my question asking why she threw in the towel on the case, Gaertner cited the difficulty of getting a jury that could fairly adjudicate the case as well as the loss of collective community support for additional punishment of Lee.

Michael Fumento exposed the absurdity of Lee’s exculpatory claims in an excellent New York Post column. For some reason Fumento’s analysis has never seen the light of day in the local media.

Moving from the realm of tragedy we now enter the realm of comedy and farce or some mixed genre that Polonius might have noted (perhaps “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”). Lee and his family have filed a lawsuit against Toyora in federal district court in St. Paul. In the lawsuit Lee alleges that Toyota is responsible for the problems flowing from his conviction and punishment.

Lee alleges that he required psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because of both the accident and his imprisonment and that he now requires sleep medication. Toyota recently moved for the dismissal of some of Lee’s claims. Law students struggling with the concept of “proximate cause” in their Torts class may be helped by this example:

In documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court, attorneys for Toyota said many of Lee’s claims are without legal merit and should be dismissed. Among them, they said Lee can’t claim damages for his incarceration because any alleged wrongful conduct by Toyota could not have directly caused his trial and imprisonment.

“The reality, of course, is that many independent actors – including police, prosecutors, defense counsel and jurors – played pivotal causative roles in sending Koua Fong Lee to prison,” Toyota’s attorneys wrote.

Now comes word that federal investigators have found no evidence of sudden acceleration by Toyota automobiles resulting from electronic failures. What about the mechanical problems previously identified by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration? Forbes reports the NHTSA investigation finding that the “vast majority” of cases of unintended acceleration were actually due to what NHTSA called “pedal misapplication” — stepping on the gas instead of the brake, or in addition to the brake. (In his New York Post column this past August, Fumento had revealed that NHTSA was sitting on this finding.) Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rejected the straightforward description of “driver error” — when a reporter asked if the problem was drivers making a mistake, LaHood shot back, “Nobody up here has ever insinuated the term that you used, driver error” — but adults can draw the appropriate conclusion.

Pedal misapplication? The case of Koua Fong Lee calls for some such euphemism to cover the institutional failures that have made Lee a free man portraying himself as a victim while pursuing a lawsuit against Toyota. I can’t think of a good euphemism at the moment. With thought of the Lee case in mind, however, I do have a word of advice for Twin Cities motorists: Drive defensively!

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