Dec. 3, 2010 -- Two months after prosecutors dropped vehicular manslaughter charges against her, a Los Angeles woman has filed suit against Toyota, claiming that sudden unintended acceleration in her Lexus SUV led to a fatal accident in 2008. Unmi Suk Chung, 62, alleges the crash was caused by a defect in the car's electronic throttle.
Chung was behind the wheel of her Lexus RX 330 when it sped out of control and slammed into a Mercedes at an off ramp. Chung's 69-year-old sister-in-law, who was in the back seat of the Lexus, was killed in the crash. A passenger who survived the crash said that Chung screamed, "No brakes! No brakes!" as the car hurtled west at 80 mph on the Santa Monica Freeway.
Despite Chung's claims that the Lexus suddenly accelerated on its own and that her brakes failed to stop the vehicle, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged her with gross vehicular manslaughter and felony reckless driving. If convicted, Chung could have faced a maximum possible sentence of six years and eight months in jail.
In October, prosecutors dismissed the charges. John Lynch of the L.A. County D.A.'s office said the case did not "appear to warrant continuing the prosecution," citing the fact that Chung was not intoxicated, had no record, and the victim's family did not want the case to proceed.
Chung's attorney Hutton said at the time that his client "continues to believe the vehicle was the cause" of the accident. The family of Chung's deceased sister-in-law, Esook Synn, has already filed its own suit againstToyota, alleging that the accident was caused by an electronic malfunction in the Lexus.
In a statement, Toyota spokesperson Mike Michels said, "Toyota sympathizes with all of those affected by the accident involving Ms. Unmi Suk Chung." However, Michels said, "Any allegations that a defect in Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System caused unintended acceleration in the RX330 are completely unfounded and have no merit. We firmly believe that Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System is safe, well designed, thoroughly tested, and robust."
The Chung case closely parallels that of Minnesota Toyota driver Koua Fong Lee. Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison after his 1996 Toyota Camry sped out of control and slammed into another car in 2006, killing the driver and two passengers. After serving two years of his sentence, Lee's case was reopened following widespread publicity over other cases of Toyotas allegedly experiencing sudden unintended acceleration.
Lee had steadfastly maintained that the Camry's brakes failed during the incident and that he had shouted "brakes not working!" to his family as the vehicle raced out of control. After a four-day hearing this summer, a judge ruled that Lee was entitled to a new trial and shortly thereafter, prosecutors announced they would not try Lee again. Lee, now a free man, has decided to join a civil lawsuit filed by the victims' family members and a survivor of the crash against Toyota over the alleged sudden acceleration issue.
The Lexus RX 330 driven by Chung in Los Angeles was recalled in 2006 to fix a floor mat that Toyota said might cause the gas pedal to stick.
'No brakes! No brakes!'
According to the Los Angeles Times, a passenger in the Lexus told the California Highway Patrol that Chung also shouted, "No brakes! No brakes!" right before the crash. The Lexus was traveling an estimated 80 mph on Interstate 10 when it crashed at the Overland Avenue exit ramp. The Times also said that a woman who claimed to have witnessed the crash wrote on the Los Angeles Fire Department's web site that she saw a "look of terror" on Chung's face during the incident.
However, prosecutors say the evidence "appeared to suggest" that Chung was mistakenly pressing on the gas pedal instead of the brake, which was a factor in the decision to drop charges. According to Lynch, "there's an issue in many people minds as to whether or not it goes beyond simple negligence and amounts to criminal negligence."
Lynch acknowledged that the defense maintained that "because it was a Toyota product maybe there was sudden acceleration syndrome, an electronic defect in the car itself."