St. Paul man is first to be compensated by Minnesota for wrongful imprisonment


A new Minnesota law that compensates people who were wrongly imprisoned is about to get its first workout.

The Pioneer Press reports a Ramsey County judge ruled Tuesday that a St. Paul man who served more than two years for criminal vehicular homicide qualifies for reimbursement under the law.

The conviction of Koua Fong Lee was eventually overturned when a defect that caused accelerators to stick on certain Toyota models was revealed.

Lee's case becomes the first use of the Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act, which took effect in Minnesota on July 1. The law calls for compensating those who were wrongfully imprisoned with at $50,000 to $100,000 for each year they spent behind bars. Court costs and other expenses can also be recovered.

The Pioneer Press reports the Minnesota Supreme Court will appoint a three-member panel of attorneys or judges to determine how much Lee should receive.

State lawmakers who pushed for passage of the bill this year pointed to Lee's case in arguing for it.

The Minnesota Innocence Project has also advocated on behalf of Lee, whose fourth child was born while he was incarcerated. Julie Jonas, an attorney with that group, told the Pioneer Press:

"I think it's a way of giving people something for the years that they lost in prison. Money can't fix everything, but it's a starting point, and it can help."

Sudden unintended acceleration

Lee was driving a 1996 Toyota Camry when he rear-ended a car stopped at a red light on an exit ramp off of Interstate 94. Family members in the Camry say Lee yelled "The brakes aren't working!" before the impact. Two people died at the scene and the injuries to a 7-year-old later proved fatal, as well.

After Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2008, information about a phenomenon called "sudden unintended acceleration" came to light. Some Toyota models were found to be prone to the condition in which the accelerator pedal becomes stuck.

Car and Driver reported that Toyota's recall of more than 4 million vehicles in 2009 to adjust accelerators and floor mats was the biggest-ever recall in the auto industry.

In March of this year, ABC News reported Toyota paid $1.2 billion to avoid prosecution for covering up the problem.

New claims are still popping up, with USA Today reporting in September on a Rhode Island man's legal claim that his wife's 2010 Corolla accelerates on its own.

The Pioneer Press says Lee and survivors of the 2006 crash in St. Paul have a lawsuit pending against Toyota, with a trial date set for Jan. 7 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

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