Crash reports tell of horror

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One car barreled through a stop sign, struck a tree and landed upside down in a Texas lake, drowning four people. Another tore across an Indiana street and crashed into a jewelry store. A third raced at an estimated 100 mph on a San Bernardino County street before striking a telephone pole, killing a restaurant owner.

At least 56 people have died in U.S. traffic accidents in which sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles has been alleged, according to a Times review of public records and interviews with authorities.

Most died while doing the mundane: returning to work after lunch, shopping, driving to the bank to make a deposit. The deaths occurred in big cities and small towns throughout the U.S.: Los Angeles; Tucson; Auburn, N.Y.; Marietta, Ga. The stories are told in court filings, federal accident complaints and police reports.

In the last decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints of 34 fatalities related to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles, far more than for any other automaker. At least 22 additional deaths related to Toyota acceleration problems have been alleged in lawsuits and police reports.

The NHTSA database does not determine whether the complaints are valid, and none of the allegations have been proved in court. Still, the increase in the number of people who publicly blame Toyota vehicles for deaths and injuries comes at a difficult time for the world’s largest automaker, which in recent months has issued nearly 10 million safety recall notices on vehicles worldwide.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons declined to comment for this report, saying the company does not discuss cases in which litigation has been, or may be, filed. The company has said it is confident that all models with potentially sticking pedals have been identified and that the recalls will address all problems.

In the last week, Toyota has become the focus of a U.S. criminal investigation related to its handling of safety issues; its president apologized before a congressional committee; and an internal memo was released in which Toyota executives boasted about saving money by averting recalls.

‘Look of terror’

Umni Suk Chung screamed, “No brakes! No brakes! No brakes!” as her Lexus RX330 sped along the shoulder of the 10 Freeway in West Los Angeles on a deadly collision course.

Chung’s luxury SUV was going nearly 80 mph when it smashed into a Mercedes sedan on the Overland Avenue exit ramp. The Lexus overturned, killing Chung’s sister-in-law, Esook Synn, who was seated in the back seat. Chung and another passenger were badly injured.

A woman who said she witnessed the accident said that she could see a “look of terror” in Chung’s face just moments before the Dec. 15, 2008, crash.

“They looked like they lost control of the car. The car did not look like it was decelerating at all, as if the accelerator was stuck or something,” the woman wrote on the Los Angeles Fire Department website.

Chung and Synn, both Torrance residents, had been returning to work at a real estate office after having lunch at a Korean restaurant.

Synn, 69, was survived by her husband, Kyung; a son, Gordon; and a daughter, Aimee.

“It’s heartbreaking for us to know how scared or terrified she must have been because of the way the accident happened. It breaks our heart,” Gordon Synn said.

Synn’s relatives have retained an attorney, Larry Grassini, who said he believes an electronic system malfunction caused the vehicle to accelerate while rendering the brakes useless. The Lexus RX330 is not among the models recently recalled by Toyota for problems linked to unintended acceleration.

Toyota officials analyzed data from the Lexus’ “black box” and determined it was traveling 78 mph at the time of the crash, according to a report by the California Highway Patrol.

Eleven months after the crash, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Chung with gross vehicular manslaughter without alcohol impairment as well as reckless driving causing injury, both felonies. Now 62, Chung faces up to six years in prison if convicted. Before the accident, she had a clean driving record, according to the CHP report.

“This case got filed and investigated before anybody knew about the problems with these Toyotas,” said Richard Hutton, Chung’s attorney.

“It’s been hell for her,” he said. “She feels bad enough that people were hurt and a relative was killed. Hopefully this case will get thrown out.”

‘My accelerator stuck’

Paramedics found Juanita Grossman with both feet still pressing the brake pedal.

Alert but critically injured, she said her 2003 Toyota Camry had inexplicably accelerated March 16, 2004, as she left a drive-through pharmacy, racing across a busy street and slamming into a jewelry store in Evansville, Ind.

“It was like a car on a slingshot. She was slung across the street into that building,” said her son, Bill.

Grossman, 77, died six days after the accident at a local hospital. In the days before her death, she described a car with a mind of its own, racing forward as she sat helpless behind the wheel, her feet jamming the brakes without effect, her son said.

“First thing she said was, ‘My accelerator stuck,’ ” recalled her son. “She kept emphatically saying that the accelerator stuck on her.”

Grossman is survived by two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The Indiana woman worked for an accounting company and was active in her church. Her son remembered her as principled and thorough, making to-do lists and never forgetting a birthday or anniversary.

The 2003 Toyota Camry is not among the models recently recalled by Toyota. After the accident, the family considered taking legal action against the company. They decided against it, worried that the legal costs would overwhelm them.

“It would’ve been the giant versus the little guy,” Bill Grossman said.

Holiday horror

On the day after Christmas 2009, Monty Hardy and three members of his church were proselytizing in a Dallas suburb, spreading their faith door to door. The four Jehovah’s Witnesses were traveling in Hardy’s 2008 Toyota Avalon about 30 mph on a residential street when the car suddenly accelerated, raced through a stop sign and left the road, crashing into a fence and tree and landing upside down in a small lake, according to a police report.

All four drowned.

Hardy, 56, and his wife had recently received a recall notice from Toyota; it said the car’s floor mats could cause the accelerator to stick. So the couple removed those mats and placed them in the trunk, said Randy Roberts, a Tyler, Texas, attorney who’s representing Linda Hardy in a planned lawsuit against the carmaker.

The couple had also taken the car into a dealership to have problems with its acceleration system examined, Roberts said.

Investigators removed the box that records speed data and gave it to Toyota for evaluation, Roberts said. The data showed the car was traveling at 47 mph when it hit the fence and at 45.5 mph when it hit the tree, the lawyer said.

“It’s an engine throttling at a stuck speed,” Roberts said. “To me, it’s pretty obvious that this was your classic acceleration problem. The man had a perfect driving record. He’s out doing work for his church the morning after Christmas.”

Fined for speeding

Jose Madrigal, a Mexican immigrant and devoted Catholic, made the sign of the cross each time he took a drive.

“My father was not very comfortable getting in a car,” Adelina Aguilera, his daughter, said recently.

On March 9, 2009, Madrigal was a passenger in a 2009 Corolla driven by his wife of 50 years, Adelina Madrigal.

His wife said she was driving on Florence Avenue when the car suddenly accelerated, even as she applied pressure to the brakes. In order to avoid approaching cars, she swerved onto the wrong side of the road, struck a car and then crashed into a concrete wall beneath the 605 Freeway, according to a Downey police accident report.

Jose Madrigal, 89, was critically injured. He died March 25 from internal injuries.

“My dad was in wonderful health. He still mowed the lawn, had a great appetite, was very active,” Aguilera said. “I expected to have my father around for a long, long time.”

Downey police Officer Sean Penrose did not believe Adelina Madrigal’s account of the accident. He issued the 71-year-old woman a ticket for speeding and wrote in his report that she must have applied the gas pedal instead of the brakes.

On April 15, three weeks after her husband’s death, she paid a fine for speeding and the case was closed, according to DMV records. It was the first ticket Madrigal ever received, her daughter said.

“My mom feels so guilty. It’s awful for her. Her partner of 50 years, the person she was with no matter what, is gone,” Aguilera said. “As a Catholic you’re taught that everything happens for a reason. That’s what’s getting her through. That everything happens for a reason.”

In the months to follow, Toyota issued two recalls for the 2009 Corolla, one for floor mats that could cause the accelerator pedal to stick and another for a gas pedal prone to sticking.

Close to home

On a Sunday morning in March 2004, a friend picked up Ethyl Marlene Foster to drive her to church in Phoenix, Ore. It was their routine.

Foster’s husband, Clarence, waved goodbye to the 67-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis and strolled back into the couple’s residence inside the mobile home park he managed. Moments later his phone rang.

“There’s been an accident in the park,” the voice on the other end said.

He rushed out to find the 2004 Toyota Camry mangled against a nearby double-wide. The force of the impact had moved the structure a foot.

Ethyl Foster was dead inside the car, just about 100 feet from her own front door. Her friend was injured.

The driver would later explain that the car accelerated uncontrollably when she shifted the transmission to drive, causing it to slam into the mobile home, according to a report filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In addition to her husband, Foster is survived by four daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The 2004 Camry has not been included in any of Toyota’s recent high-profile recalls.

‘The car had a mind of its own’

On the day after Thanksgiving in 2009, Colleen Trousdale and her 10-year-old granddaughter went out on a Black Friday shopping spree.

They were driving through a busy intersection in downtown Auburn, N.Y., their car loaded with presents, when a 2010 Toyota Camry ran a red light and slammed into the driver’s side of Trousdale’s Ford Taurus, said Auburn police Lt. Shawn Butler.

Trousdale was pronounced dead at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. She was 56. Her granddaughter escaped with minor injuries.

Police questioned the Camry’s driver, 56-year-old Barbara Kraushaar, as she was treated by paramedics. The woman had run through three red lights and was driving 60 mph, witnesses estimated, before the crash.

“The car had a mind of its own,” she said, according to Butler.

Doctors would later conclude that Kraushaar had suffered a stroke, Butler said. In an interview about a month after the crash, Kraushaar told police she had applied her brakes but could not stop the car, Butler said.

Police have not determined whether the stroke or mechanical failure, or both, caused the accident, Butler said. The 2010 Camry is under two recalls, one for a floor mat that can cause the accelerator to stick and a second to replace a gas pedal blamed in some sudden-acceleration cases.

Concerned about the problems with the Camry, police invited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate.

The agency removed the “black box” that holds data about the vehicle’s speed and asked Toyota officials to download it. The company reported that it is not capable of retrieving data from black boxes in 2010 Camrys, Butler said.

The information in that black box, Butler said, “is the last piece of the puzzle.”

Professional driver

Adegoke Abdul Aladegbemi was a professional chauffeur, employed to shuttle around diplomats for the Nigerian consulate in Atlanta.

On the evening of March 1, 2009, Aladegbemi had just picked up his 6-year-old daughter, Julianna, at an office park in suburban Marietta, Ga., when the 2005 Toyota Camry that belonged to the consulate sped through a stop sign at a T-intersection and plunged into an ornamental lake.

Witnesses waded in to assist, but the father and daughter weren’t freed from the vehicle until Cobb County emergency rescue personnel arrived a few minutes later and extracted them, alive but unconscious. Aladegbemi, 57, and his daughter were both pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.

“Abdul, it is hard to believe that your address now is in the heaven,” the driver’s friend, Marcio Silva, wrote in the online guest book for remembrances.

“Brother Goke and Julianna, rest in the bosom of the Lord. We love you,” added another, Gbadebo Adebayo.

A consular official confirmed that the chancellery owned the car involved in the accident, and that it had filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The official declined to discuss further details about the incident other than to assert that Aladegbemi was known to be a good driver.

The 2005 Camry has not been included in any of the recent Toyota recalls.

Beloved matriarch

Noriko Uno left her Upland home on Aug. 28, 2009, to do some grocery shopping and deposit the latest receipts from the family’s sushi restaurant. Her errands were all within a mile of her home.

She was driving south along Euclid Avenue at about the 30 mph speed limit when her 2006 Toyota Camry suddenly sped up to nearly 100 mph. Witnesses reportedly told police that they saw the 66-year-old woman tearing along the eastbound lane of the suburban roadway, gripping the steering wheel, her face frozen in terror, trying to steer out of traffic and away from pedestrians.

The car struck a telephone pole and then careened into some shrubbery. It became airborne and came to rest after crashing into a large tree.

When emergency workers extracted her body from the wrecked vehicle on that Friday afternoon, they noted the hand brake had been pulled up in a last-ditch attempt to halt the speeding car.

Reeling from their loss, Uno’s husband, Yasuharu, and adult son, Jeffrey, at first were mystified as to what could have caused the normally cautious bookkeeper to be traveling at such a dangerous speed.

Then they learned details of the runaway Lexus accident in San Diego that took the lives of a California Highway Patrol officer and his family on the same day that Uno died.

Yasuharu and Jeffrey now presume that unintended acceleration caused the fatal accident that killed their family’s beloved matriarch. They filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Toyota on Feb. 4 -- a painful decision, according to their lawyer.

“They’re a Japanese family. They’ve owned nothing but Toyotas. They would have liked to see the jewel of the auto manufacturing society not tainted in any way,” said Garo Mardirossian, the family’s attorney.

The 2006 model Camry is not included in any of Toyota’s recent high-profile recalls.

“Seven witnesses saw this car rocketing down Euclid doing 100 mph with a woman behind the steering wheel frantically trying to steer out of harm’s way,” Mardirossian said. “She had pulled the hand brake all the way up. Unfortunately, people don’t know that the hand brake is only good if you’re not going so fast.”

The Unos still own two Toyotas.

Times researcher Zohreen Adamjee contributed to this report.