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Toyota sudden acceleration at center of L.A. vehicular manslaughter case

March 26, 2010 | 12:40 pm

Los Angeles County prosecutors say they are taking a close look at the case of a woman who faces vehicular manslaughter charges for a 2008 freeway crash that she blames on sudden acceleration.

Umni Suk Chung told investigators that her Lexus RX 330 accelerated on its own -- even as she frantically applied the brakes -- before a fatal crash on the 10 Freeway in West Los Angeles.

A prosecutor from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said his office is closely examining Chung's account. She faces felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving causing injury.

"The district attorney's office is doing everything it possibly can to make sure the conduct was criminal and not as a result of automobile defect," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Markus. "Every case that we get involved with, there's obviously a defense presented, and we would examine the conduct in the same fashion."

Chung, a Torrance resident, was driving some co-workers back to the office after lunch when her car raced to nearly 80 mph and crashed into a Mercedes sedan on the Overland Avenue exit ramp. Esook Synn, who was seated in the back seat of the Lexus, was killed in the crash. Chung and another passenger were seriously injured.

The surviving passenger told investigators from the California Highway Patrol that Chung shouted, "No brakes! No brakes! No brakes!" in the moments before the Dec. 15, 2008, crash.

Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled millions of Lexus and Toyota models to repair defects that it said could, in rare instances, cause gas pedals to stick. The Lexus RX 330 is not among those models. But Chung's lawyer said he believes an electronic system glitch caused the car to suddenly accelerate.

"This case got filed and investigated before anybody knew about the problems with these Toyotas," said Chung's lawyer, Richard Hutton. "Hopefully this case will get thrown out."

Chung, 62, is scheduled to appear in court June 25 so a judge can set a date for a preliminary hearing.

-- Stuart Pfeifer