Legal Briefing: Can 'Toyota Defense' Be Used to Free Jailed Innocents?


A daily look at the legal news and business of law


Were You Driving a Toyota When You Ran People Over?

In 2007, a Minnesota man Koua Fong Lee was sentenced to eight years in prison for killing three people by plowing his 1996 Toyota Camry into them. Lee has always claimed he tried to stop his car: "I was stepping on the brakes as hard as possible."

Now the victims' relatives and his prosecutor want to reexamine the case, even though the 1996 Camry isn't part of Toyota's (TM) acceleration-related recall, and there was evidence that Lee was a novice driver, who might have mistaken the gas for the brake. Nonetheless, the Associated Press notes, Lee isn't alone in trying to re-raise the car-acted-alone theory, now known as the "Toyota Defense."

Shouldn't the Buck Stop at the Top?

President Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read: The BUCK STOPS Here! -- a no-exceptions, personal accountability mantra based on the power of the presidency that has been embraced by President Obama severaltimes. Wouldn't it be nice if corporate titans had a similar view of accountability for their corporations' misdeeds?

But they don't -- and that was one of the key reforms of Sarbanes-Oxley: making top executives personally sign-off on financial statements. Important as that reform was, it didn't reach many areas where executives still seek to evade responsibility on an "I-didn't-know" defense.

Now comes an article from Corporate Counsel groaning about the government's increasing threats during investigations to invoke the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine. The doctrine may apply if the corporate misconduct threatened the public health, welfare or safety in violation of a statute that allows individuals to be prosecuted; the corporate officer had by virtue of her position the power to prevent or quickly correct the violation, regardless of actual knowledge; and the corporate officer failed to prevent or correct the violation.

In short, if you had the power to protect people from your company's product or practices, and you didn't, you're responsible. Sounds to me like a doctrine the government should be applying -- not just threatening to apply -- in every possible case.

Judges Threatened Because of Second Amendment Decision May Testify in Retrial

The landmark Second Amendment case pending before the Supreme Court came up from the Seventh Circuit where a three-judge panel of conservative judges relied on Supreme Court precedent to find states were not bound by the Second Amendment. Those judges were immediately the target of a local shock jock who asserted the judges "deserved to be killed" in an Internet post, and helpfully provided the judges' names, photos, work addresses and phone numbers. A jury deadlocked in the first trial over whether the threat was protected free speech or an unprotected "true threat." Now that the retrial is set to start, the prosecution has announced its intention to call the three judges to testify for the first time.

Yet Another Lawyer Turns to a Cupcake Career

Specializing in "butch" cupcakes -- no "pink and magical" ones here -- David Arrick is the latest lawyer to make headlines for leaving practice for the cupcake biz.

And in the Business of Law:

Debevoise & Plimpton had a lousy year while Cahill, Gordon & Reindel had a good one, and McGuireWoods's was mixed. From a layoffs perspective, the Philadelphia market was particularly hard hit in 2009.