MINNEAPOLIS — The judge presiding over a lawsuit against Toyota over a 2006 crash that killed three people told jurors at the outset of the trial Thursday that in deciding on responsibility for the accident they should not be influenced by the fact that one of the drivers was sent to prison and subsequently released amid reports of a sudden acceleration problem affecting some of the automaker’s cars.

Koua Fong Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and spent 2½ years in prison after the crash, in which his Camry slammed into the back of a family’s Oldsmobile at high speed, killing two people instantly, paralyzing a young girl who died 16 months later and permanently injuring two other people.

Lee has always maintained that his car accelerated on its own as he was exiting Interstate 94 in St. Paul and that he pumped its brakes but to no avail, and he and his family and the other family are suing Toyota over the crash.

Lee’s attorney, Robert Hilliard, said during his opening statement that the crash was caused by a design defect involving a plastic pulley in the Camry’s mechanical accelerator control system that the Japanese automaker failed to identify. He said the evidence will contradict Toyota’s claim that the car wasn’t defective and that Lee mistakenly hit the gas instead of the brake in the seconds before the crash.

Lee won a new trial after reports started surfacing of sudden acceleration in other Toyota models that had electronic throttles, though a major reason was the ineffective defense that his original lawyer put up. Prosecutors quickly decided against a retrial.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery told jurors Thursday that Lee’s criminal case isn’t relevant to the civil case.

“You will not be asked to award Mr. Lee money for the time he spent in prison,” Montgomery said.

The case instead is focusing on whether Lee’s car was defective, and the severe or fatal injuries suffered by people in the Oldsmobile as well as the lesser injuries suffered by Lee and his family, who were on their way home from church at the time.

Killed instantly were the Oldsmobile driver, Javis Trice-Adams Sr., and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. who are not subjects of this lawsuit. His 6-year-old niece, Devyn Bolton, was left paralyzed and died 16 months later. Two other passengers in Trice-Adams’ car suffered permanent injuries but survived and will testify.

“A happy, healthy family (was) ripped apart in a few seconds because of Toyota’s actions,” said Bill Markovits, an attorney for the plaintiffs.