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Torrance woman cleared in fatal crash she blames on sudden acceleration

Prosecutors have dismissed a vehicular-manslaughter charge against a Torrance woman who had blamed a deadly 2008 freeway crash on a mechanical glitch she said caused her Lexus sports utility vehicle to accelerate out of control.

The decision by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office circumvented what could have been a spirited trial about whether human error or a computer-system malfunction caused Unmi Suk Chung’s Lexus RX330 to crash on the 10 Freeway in West Los Angeles, killing a passenger in the backseat.

In the last year, sudden acceleration has been blamed for hundreds of crashes of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles. Dozens of wrongful-death lawsuits have been filed against the Japanese automaker, including one — which Toyota recently settled — that involved a 2009 crash that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members.

The Japanese automaker has recalled more than 5 million vehicles to replace floor mats and repair defective gas pedals it said could cause acceleration problems. It has insisted that many of the accidents blamed on sudden acceleration could have been caused by drivers mistakenly pressing gas pedals instead of the brakes. The RX330 was not among the recent recalls but was recalled in 2006 because of a floor-mat defect that could cause the gas pedal to stick.

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Prosecutors had alleged that Chung’s reckless driving caused the crash. Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John F. Lynch said he believes Chung inadvertently pressed the gas pedal instead of the brakes, causing her to lose control. Such a mistake could be grounds for a manslaughter conviction, but publicity about the recalls damaged what already was going to be a difficult case to prosecute, Lynch said.

Chung, 62, screamed, “No brakes! No brakes! No brakes!” on Dec. 15, 2008, as her car raced to nearly 80 mph and crashed on the Overland Avenue exit ramp and overturned, a surviving passenger told CHP investigators. Esook Synn, 69, who was in the backseat, died in the crash.

Synn’s relatives and the surviving passenger injured in the crash had implored prosecutors to drop the manslaughter case, Lynch said. Chung had faced a sentence of up to six years in prison if convicted of the felony charge.

“The likelihood that 12 people in the community would convict this woman was not good,” said Lynch, who asked Superior Court Judge Keith Schwartz to dismiss the case Oct. 19. “I think she would present a very sympathetic figure in the courtroom.”

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Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons declined to discuss the case but said the RX330 “is both safe and reliable” and had received a top rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The dismissal of the charge against Chung came three months after a Minnesota judge overturned the conviction of a man who had alleged that his Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated and caused a 2006 crash that killed three people. The judge ruled that evidence about the Toyota sudden-acceleration problems might have led to a different verdict.

Chung’s attorney, Richard Hutton, said he had been prepared to argue at trial that a computer-system malfunction caused the SUV to accelerate out of control, and that there was nothing the driver could have done to prevent the fatal crash. He praised Lynch for deciding to drop the criminal case.

“He did exactly what a prosecutor should do. He took the time, analyzed the case and did the right thing,” Hutton said. “The only difference between the two of us is he thinks there’s a reasonable chance it was pedal error. I think there’s no chance.”

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Still pending is a wrongful-death lawsuit that Synn’s relatives filed against Toyota, blaming the collision on a defect they said caused the Lexus to suddenly accelerate.

The criminal prosecution had traumatized Chung, who was disturbed by her role in the fatal crash and the prospect of going to prison “for something she could not have prevented,” Hutton said.

“It’s a tremendous load off her shoulders. She was very depressed. Combined with the death, it was the worst part of her life,” Hutton said.

Lynch said a mechanical inspection of the car found no evidence that Chung had attempted to use the brakes. But Hutton said the inspection was meaningless because a computer glitch caused the brakes not to work.

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“She was on the brakes, but for some reason they didn’t engage. If they didn’t engage, you would expect to see no evidence of engagement,” Hutton said. “That’s the whole problem with the computer: You hit the brakes and nothing happens.”

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com


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