Upon Review, Tasering Not So Funny

Fans of The Hangover undoubtedly remember the scene in which the actors are tasered by a group of children at the instruction of two police officers.  We here at Abnormal Use must admit that we found it at amusing.  Who wouldn’t find it funny watching 5000 volts of pulsed current flowing through Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis?  However, after the recent $10 million jury verdict against it, TASER International might not consider this scene a laughing matter.

Very recently, in Turner v. Taser International, Inc., Case No. 3:10-CV-00125 (W.D.N.C.), a federal jury in the Western District of North Carolina ordered TASER to pay the estate of a 17-year old North Carolina resident $10 million.  According to reports, in 2008, the boy went into cardiac arrest and died inside a grocery store after being shocked in the chest for 37 seconds by a Charlotte-Mecklenberg police officer.   The boy was tased at the store by police following a verbal dispute with his boss.  The City of Charlotte settled with the boy’s estate for $625,000 in 2009 without admitting any wrongdoing.  TASER has moved for judgment in its favor notwithstanding the verdict.

Counsel for the plaintiffs issued a press release regarding the verdict, which said the jury found TASER negligently failed to warn users that discharging the taser into the chest of a person near his heart poses a substantial risk of cardiac arrest.  The press release further indicates that the medical examiner “found no drugs” in the decedent’s system, though Heraldonline.com reports that TASER has said a drug screen was not performed either at the autopsy or at any time before the lab destroyed the teenager’s blood evidence.  In any event, presiding District Judge Conrad reportedly did not allow the defense to offer evidence that three bags of marijuana were found in the decedent plaintiff’s sock during the incident and did not instruct the jury on contributory negligence in spite of defense counsel’s argument that the plaintiff’s behavior was negligent and “necessitated the use of force by police.”  Other outlets report that the teenager had committed offenses including theft, assault of other employees, resisting arrest, and assault on law enforcement.

TASER, the leading manufacturer of conducted energy devices (CEDs), is no stranger to litigation.  It has won judgment or been dismissed from more than 125 product liability cases.  The Turner verdict is only the company’s second adverse jury verdict (the first being a $7 million verdict in 2008 which was later reduced to $200,000).  With the limited information about the case in the media, we can only speculate what distinguished this case from the previous 128.  In TASER’s opinion, “compassion may have overwhelmed the scientific evidence presented in this case.”  TASER may be right, but certainly compassion was not the only factor at play.

It stands to reason that being shocked with large amounts of electricity may not be synonymous with a trip to the spa.  According to TASER’s website, however, the 5000 volts of electricity exerted by its product have a lower risk of danger than a 110 volt wall outlet.  TASER bases this conclusion on a taser’s pulsated current versus the continuous current found in a wall outlet.  Even at a pulsated rate, 37 seconds still seems like a long time to be subjected to 5000 volts of electricity – especially in the chest area.

A study recently released by the United States Department of Justice indicated that “there is currently no medical evidence that CEDs pose a significant health risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia when deployed reasonably.” (emphasis added)  Interestingly enough, the study fails to define “reasonably.”  Regardless of how it is interpreted, the risk of injury is present. The question is what is TASER’s duty to warn?

We do not know what warnings TASER provided police officers prior to this incident.  (According to the DOJ study, TASER now recommends changing the target zone to below the chest).  Should officers have known the dangers regardless of any inadequate warning from the manufacturer?  Certainly, the officers from The Hangover didn’t get the memo.

Want more on this story?  Try this interesting piece from the South Carolina Criminal Defense Blog.