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Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 11, 2017

Jassmine D. Adams Plaintiff-Appellee
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellants State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs-Appellees Quincy Ray Adams Plaintiff-Appellee State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs-Appellees
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellants Jassmine D. Adams Plaintiff-Appellant State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellees Bridgette Trice, as trustee for the heirs and next of kin of Devyn Bolton, deceased Plaintiff-Appellant Koua Fong Lee; Nhia Koua Lee; Nong Lee; Panghoua Moua; Jemee Lee, a minor child; American Family Mutual Insurance Company, as subrogee of Koua Fong Lee; State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellees Bridgette Trice, as trustee for the heirs and next of kin of Devyn Bolton, deceased Plaintiff Koua Fong Lee; Nhia KouaLee; Nong Lee; Panghoua Moua; Jemee Lee, a minor child Intervenor Plaintiffs-Appellants American Family Mutual Insurance Company, as subrogee of Koua Fong Lee; State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellees Quincy Ray Adams Plaintiff-Appellant State of Minnesota, Department of Human Services; UCare Minnesota; Medica Health Plans Intervenor Plaintiffs
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.; Toyota Motor North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; Calty Design Research, Inc. Defendants-Appellees

          Submitted: August 1, 2017

         Appeals from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         On June 10, 2006, Koua Fong Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry on the interstate. When Lee exited the interstate, the Camry failed to come to a stop and rear-ended another car waiting at a stoplight, killing three of the other car's five passengers and injuring others, including those in Lee's vehicle. Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide, but his conviction was vacated after Toyota recalled several models of their Camry for issues related to unintended acceleration, ultimately leading to new evidence in Lee's case.

         Family members of the deceased filed a lawsuit against Toyota in state court in 2010, alleging, among other things, personal injury and wrongful death based on strict product liability, and Lee eventually joined as a plaintiff. Following a four-week trial, a jury found Lee 40 percent and Toyota 60 percent at fault for the collision. The district court entered judgment on June 25, 2015. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. Background

         In June 2006, after attending several family events in Minneapolis, Lee was driving his 1996 Toyota Camry eastbound on the interstate from Minneapolis toward St. Paul with his pregnant wife, their young daughter, his father, and his brother. He was going around 65 miles per hour. He exited the interstate at the Snelling Avenue ramp, which had a slight incline leading up to an intersection. Lee testified that he pressed on the accelerator as he went up the ramp and pushed on the brake at the top of the incline, approximately 600 feet from the intersection.

         Lee and his passengers explained that as Lee approached the intersection, he pumped the brakes and yelled that they were not working. The Camry was going approximately 75 miles per hour when it rear-ended an Oldsmobile Ciera that was waiting at a red light, pushing the Oldsmobile into oncoming traffic. The Oldsmobile's driver, Javis Trice-Adams, and Trice-Adams' six-year-old son, Javis Jr., died at the scene of the collision. Quincy Adams, Trice-Adams' father, was seated in the front passenger seat and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Trice-Adams' niece, six-year-old Devyn Bolton, was seated in the middle of the back seat. Upon impact, she ceased breathing and her heart stopped beating. Paramedics revived her in the ambulance, though she stayed in a coma for a period of weeks. Devyn was rendered quadriplegic, and though she was able to fully regain her mental faculties, she died from respiratory complications arising from her quadriplegia approximately a year after the accident. Finally, Jassmine Adams, Trice-Adams' thirteen-year-old daughter, was seated in the back passenger seat of the car. Her leg was crushed by the impact, but she survived. Occupants of Lee's car were also injured, but all survived. In 2007, Lee was charged with vehicular homicide. Though he alleged at trial that the Camry's brakes were not working, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

         In 2010, Toyota recalled several models of their Camry-not including the 1996 Camry Lee was driving at the time of the accident-for issues related to unintended acceleration.[1] Lee filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state court based on new information about instances of unintended acceleration in 1995 and 1996 Camrys, and his conviction was ultimately vacated. Prosecutors did not appeal or pursue additional criminal charges, and Lee was released after being incarcerated for over two years.

         Family members of the deceased filed this product liability lawsuit against Toyota in state court in 2010, alleging that a defect in Lee's Camry's acceleration system led to the collision and resultant injuries. Lee eventually joined as a plaintiff. Toyota removed the case to federal court. Prior to trial, the district court ruled on a number of motions, including Toyota's motion to exclude evidence of other similar instances of unintended acceleration (OSIs) and Toyota's motion to exclude the testimony of the plaintiffs' mechanical engineering expert, John Stilson.[2] The court allowed the plaintiffs to present OSI evidence, but required the plaintiffs to reduce their proposed witnesses to "a list of a much smaller number . . . whose testimony is most similar, " ultimately limiting the plaintiffs to three OSI witnesses. Each OSI witness testified that he was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry with over 100, 000 miles on it when he experienced at least one incident of unintended acceleration.

         The court denied the motion to exclude the plaintiffs' expert. At trial, the plaintiffs' expert, Stilson, explained the relevant parts of a 1996 Camry's engine, focusing specifically on the components of the accelerator control system-which included the throttle-and the cruise control system. Though both systems were housed within the same plastic dust cover, Stilson testified that the cruise control system was mechanically separate from the accelerator control system. Stilson opined that the accelerator control system was defective. He conducted testing which revealed that, when heated to a certain temperature, two of the throttle pulleys in the accelerator control system would bind together and cause the throttle to stick. In order to conduct these tests, he explained, he had to clip the cruise control arm away from its original factory position. Stilson ultimately concluded that the plastic dust cover had gaps allowing heat to enter and become trapped inside, causing the plastic throttle pulleys to overheat and stick together. In Stilson's opinion, this sticking defect led to the unintended acceleration, and ultimately to the collision in this case.

         Prior to the verdict, Toyota moved for judgment as a matter of law (JAML), arguing that the evidence was insufficient to prove a design defect and causation. Toyota also reiterated its arguments about the inadmissibility of the OSI evidence and Stilson's testimony in post-trial motions, which the district court denied. The jury returned a $14 million verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, though the court reduced the monetary award to plaintiff Bridgette Trice, Devyn Bolton's mother, based on a prior settlement. Judgment was entered in June 2015. Toyota timely appealed and Trice cross-appealed.

         On appeal, Toyota argues that the district court erred in (1) admitting the OSI evidence, (2) admitting Stilson's expert testimony, (3) denying Toyota's motion for JAML, and (4) awarding plaintiff Trice prejudgment interest. On cross-appeal, Trice argues that the district court erred in reducing her monetary award.

         II. Discussion

         A. OSI Evidence

         Toyota argues that the district court erred by allowing the plaintiffs to present evidence of allegedly similar incidents experienced by other 1996 Toyota Camry drivers. "The decision whether to admit 'similar-incident' evidence is committed to the sound discretion of the district court, " Arabian Agri. Servs. Co. v. Chief Indus., Inc., 309 F.3d 479, 485 (8th Cir. 2002), and we will not overturn the decision to admit OSI evidence absent a clear and prejudicial abuse of discretion, see First Sec. Bank v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 152 F.3d 877, 879 (8th Cir. 1998); Drabik v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 997 F.2d 496, 508 (8th Cir. 1993).

         OSI evidence "may be relevant to prove the defendant's notice of defects, the defendant's ability to correct known defects, the magnitude of the danger, the product's lack of safety for intended uses, or causation." Lovett ex rel. Lovett v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 201 F.3d 1074, 1081 (8th Cir. 2000); see Fed.R.Evid. 401 (evidence must be relevant).[3] "Evidence of prior accidents is admissible only if the proponent of the evidence shows that the accidents occurred under circumstances substantially similar to those at issue in the case at bar." Hale v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 756 F.2d 1322, 1332 (8th Cir. 1985). An OSI need not "occur in precisely the same manner in order to qualify as being substantially similar." Joy v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 999 F.2d 549, 554 (D.C. Cir. 1993).

         The district court permitted three witnesses to testify about purportedly similar incidents: Michael Frazier, Ronald Neumeister, and Patrick Powers. Michael Frazier testified that his family purchased a 1996 Camry in 1998. In September 2006, after his daughter reported a problem with the car, Frazier attempted to drive the Camry from Boston to Rhode Island-approximately 75 miles. Frazier explained that he drove the Camry through a tunnel in stop-and-go traffic with little need to use the accelerator; releasing his foot from the brake pedal was enough to let the car crawl forward. At one point when Frazier removed his foot from the brake pedal, the Camry lurched forward. Frazier testified that he tapped the gas pedal and the car returned to normal. The car lurched again 30 seconds later. Frazier again tapped the accelerator, keeping his left foot on the brake pedal, but the racing "got worse" each time, meaning the engine revved "even more." Frazier put the car in neutral and turned off the engine in an attempt to gain control of the car, but the engine continued racing when he reignited it. Frazier had both feet on the brake pedal and used the full weight of his body to control the car with the brakes. When he was able to exit the tunnel and get to the side of the road, the Camry had caught fire. A mechanic told Frazier the cause of the revving was a "sticky valve." The Camry had approximately 135, 000 miles on it at the time of this incident.

         Ronald Neumeister testified that his family purchased a 1996 Camry in 1998 and drove it without incident until 2006. Then, Neumeister described an incident where he applied pressure to the gas pedal to accelerate up a highway on-ramp until he reached a speed of approximately 60 miles per hour. When Neumeister released his foot from the accelerator, the Camry continued accelerating. Neumeister testified that he immediately checked to see if something had jammed the gas pedal, but found nothing unusual. Neumeister put the car in neutral and steered it to the side of the highway. After inspecting the car, Neumeister turned it back on and drove home. The Camry had over 100, 000 miles on it at the time of this incident. Neumeister also testified that on several other occasions, the engine would accelerate immediately upon his starting the Camry, and that he experienced one other incident of unintended acceleration after applying pressure to the gas pedal while driving.

         Dr. Patrick Powers testified that he purchased a used 1996 Camry in 2000 or 2001. The Camry had approximately 160, 000 miles on it when Powers purchased it. In 2008, Powers accelerated onto the freeway and then took his foot off the gas pedal, but the Camry continued accelerating. Thinking the gas pedal may be stuck, Powers tapped it with his foot. However, tapping the gas pedal caused the car to continue to "accelerate wide open, " "as if the gas was floored." The brakes did not respond to normal pressure, and only responded slightly when Powers put both feet on the brake and applied the full weight of his body, which caused the car to smoke. Powers testified that his car accelerated to a speed of at least 95 miles per hour, with a maximum speed of perhaps 120 miles per hour. Powers attempted to put the car in neutral several times before he was successful. When Powers put the Camry in neutral the final time, he was able to regain control of the vehicle, coast to the side of the road, and turn the car off. After exiting the highway, Powers experienced several instances where the accelerator stuck at a particular speed, but did not accelerate independently. He testified on redirect examination that the brakes "had no measurable effect whatsoever" in the first two miles of the highway incident.

         On cross examination, Toyota elicited testimony from both Powers and Neumeister that the acceleration problem did not reappear after a mechanic cleaned the throttle body on each of their Camrys. However, the testimony of Frazier, Powers, and Neumeister established that these men and their ...


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