TASER International’s Stock Shocked By $6.2 Million Damages Award
by John E. Dannenberg
The stock of TASER International, Inc. tanked by 11% to $6.13 per share on June 9, 2008 when three days earlier a federal jury in San Jose, California awarded $6.2 million in a wrongful death suit to the family of a fatally shocked prisoner. TASER spokesman Steve Tuttle said it plans to appeal the verdict.
Scottsdale, Arizona based TASER manufactures 50,000 volt stun guns for sale to police departments to use in lieu of bullets as “less lethal” weapons. But the irony of the concept “less lethal” is on a par with that of “partially pregnant.” It makes precious little difference to the deceased victim if he is slain by a police bullet or a Taser. While TASER touts its stun guns as safe, the statistics tell otherwise. Over 160 deaths involving Taser shocks by police have left civil rights advocates protesting and aggrieved families suing.
TASER has proudly touted its record of having survived 70 wrongful death lawsuits without a verdict against the company. But many of those cases were “settled,” meaning payment was made without admitting liability.
The instant case involved the family of Robert Heston, who died on February 19, 2005 after Salinas, California police shocked him three times in subduing him. High on amphetamines, Heston was particularly susceptible to a fatal heart stoppage by the electrical conductive process known as “acidosis.” The combination of inebriation and tasering is a known lethal hazard. The problem here, a common one, is that the tasering officers don’t first know the chemical state of their prey before they shocked him.
Heston’s suit alleged excessive force, failure to train the officers, battery, negligence of the manufacturer to warn its users of the danger, and strict product liability. The jury found for plaintiffs solely on the warning-negligence claim. It awarded the deceased’s estate $21,000 in compensatory damages plus $200,000 (against TASER) in punitive damages. For Heston’s parents, the jury awarded $1 million in compensatory damages plus $5 million in punitive damages.
Importantly, the jury specifically found Heston’s death was due to both the causes of acidosis from his own inebriation and “the prolonged deployment of Taser ECDs” which concurrently caused the fatal cardiac arrest. It held TASER solely liable, absolving the Salinas police department of any blame. Finally, the jury assigned Heston 85% comparative percentage of fault and TASER 15%.
The verdict is a potentially bad omen for TASER - which is facing 36 similar lawsuits - but it has not stopped them from selling their product to police. Nor has it stopped police killing of prisoners and detainees. During the same week as the Heston verdict, a 26-year-old Brooklyn man was tasered to death by New York’s Suffolk County Police Department. Toxicology reports were not available yet, but the suspect was reportedly trying to swallow some cocaine at the time. Ominously, this death occurred one day before thousands of New York police officers were to begin carrying stun guns, a decision made upon a January 2008 recommendation in a report written by the Rand Corporation for the New York police, notwithstanding a New York Civil Liberties Union complaint that police decisions to use guns are weighted towards black suspects.
The Heston verdict may color their thinking. Heston’s estate was represented by attorney John Burton. See: Heston v. City of Salinas, U.S.D.C. (ND CA), Case No. C 05-03658 JW. The verdict, complaint and other documents from the case are posted on PLN’s website.
Other sources: Arizona Republic, Inter Press Service
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