A human face on the fallout of Toyota's recalls: Are there more Koua Fong Lees?

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Anyone who needs a refresher course in the human cost of defective automobiles should read the story on this Web page about the case of Koua Fong Lee, 32, from a story published in today's Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.

I'll never forget the cold night in February during the height of Toyota's recall crisis when I got a call from the editor of the Pioneer Press, Thom Fladung.

Being the former managing editor of the Detroit Free Press, my friend Thom called me knowing his newspaper had a story that would be of great interest in Detroit. A man convicted of vehicular homicide would get a chance at freedom because his defense lawyer never thought of investigating whether the car he drove in a fatal accident was defective.

During his criminal trial, Lee claimed he knew he was hitting the brakes on his 1996 Toyota Camry when the accident occurred in 2006. But his lawyer, seeking mercy for his client, nonetheless decided to tell the jury that Lee accidentally had hit the accelerator.

Fast forward to 2010 after Toyota recalled 11.2 million vehicles worldwide -- many of them for potential defects related to unintended acceleration.

Koua Fong Lee and his wife Panghoua Moua appear at a press conference after his release Thursday from the Ramsey County Minn. Jail.

Photo credit: Ben Garvin/St. Paul Pioneer Press

Prompted by the Pioneer Press' in-depth reporting of the case, a county judge on Thursday vacated Lee's eight-year sentence and set him free. The prosecutor elected not to pursue a new trial. The family of the three victims of the accident supported Lee's release and have filed suit against Toyota.

Detroit is well-accustomed to hearing about a plethora of ambulance-chasing product liability cases filed against automakers on an almost daily basis. Some are legitimate. Some are bogus.

But this story is different. A husband and father of four young children was falsely convicted and imprisoned because his lawyer didn't bother to see whether the accident was caused by a vehicle defect.

Fortunately, this tragic story ended with justice for Lee and his family.

But the bigger question is this: Are there more Koua Fong Lees?

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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