In 2006, then 29-year-old Kuoa Fong Lee was driving his pregnant wife and their extended family home after attending Sunday services at his church. According to his account, he said he pumped the brakes on his car as he exited the highway, but they failed. As a result, he went barreling through a red light at an intersection and hit two other cars. A 33-year-old man and his 10-year-old son who were in one of the cars were killed instantly. In addition, a 6-year-old girl was left paraplegic and later died from her injuries. Prosecutors argued that Lee purposely had his foot on the gas, accelerating as he approached the intersection — essentially eluding that the act was an intended suicide mission. The prosecution prevailed and Lee is now serving eight years in prison for vehicular homicide.
In 2006 this story would have been interesting, but certainly would not have raised a lot of eyebrows. Oh, did I forget to mention, Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry? A meaningless point in 2006, but a game-changing point in 2010. Lee has maintained his innocence throughout his ordeal. He was recently quoted from prison as saying, “I am so sad. To the victims’ family and everybody else, this was not something I intended to happen. I tried to avoid this situation to the best of my abilities.” At the trial, relatives of the victim begged the judge to give Lee the maximum sentence. In light of today’s Toyota debacle, these same relatives now support Lee and are working with a lawyer to help get him exonerated.
While I respect the way Toyota has handled its recall crisis since the story broke, I am disheartened at the thought of how long they knew about the issues and did nothing. Toyota executives testified before Congress last week and disclosed that the sudden acceleration problems were more extensive than they originally thought. They also apologized for underestimating the issue. Smells like an admission of guilt to me.
I think Toyota has an opportunity to go where no brand has ever gone before when responding to a product safety issue. Recall is the minimum ante and everyone does it, usually because of public pressure and liability issues. I passionately believe Toyota should take its army of resources — legal, financial, public relations, whatever — and ignite a proactive, all out assault to get Kuoa Fong Lee out of prison as soon as humanly possible. This time Toyota should accelerate and not put its foot on the brake until Lee is free. I’m sure legal experts will say that this would be an admission of guilt and put the company in a position of being financially liable to Lee. And I’m sure they’re right, but who gives a shit. They admitted (before Congress) that they knew about the problem and did nothing. There is a man behind bars because of Toyota’s actions. There is a wife at home without a husband and a toddler without a Dad. Never mind the three people who were killed as a result of this accident. This is about doing the right thing and doing it immediately. This is not about minimizing a company’s financial exposure. If Toyota is sincere about making amends with its customers, I can’t think of another Toyota owner — out of the millions of people who own a Toyota — whose name should be at the top of the list.
What do you think?
If you believe Kuoa Fong Lee deserves to be free, I ask that you tweet about this story and/or use whatever other social media platform you choose to help bring awareness to Lee’s situation.