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$1,423,127 in Attorney Fees Awarded in Taser Suit; Damages Reduced

A California federal district court has awarded $1,423,127 in attorney fees in the first lawsuit to result in a verdict against TASER International for failing to warn purchasers its electronic control devices pose a risk of acidosis, to a degree that posed a risk of cardiac arrest, when its devices are used for a prolonged administration of electricity on people.

Before the Court was a motion for attorney fees after a jury found against TASER, but its June 6, 2008 verdict found the police officers from the City of Salinas did not use extreme force when they used their Tasers on Robert C. Heston. The jury found that TASER’s failure to warn users of the risks associated with prolonged deployment was a substantial factor in causing police officers to administer a prolonged deployment, which resulted in Heton having a cardiac arrest and dying.

The jury awarded Heston’s estate $21,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. His parents were awarded $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitives for wrongful death. The jury, however, found that Heston was 85% comparatively at fault in causing his injuries due to his history of drug abuse and use of methamphetamine at the time of his death, reducing the compensatory awards to $3,150 and $150,000 respectively. The Court vacated the punitive awards in entirety on grounds they were improper as a matter of law. Thus, the total award amounted to $153,150.

The plaintiff’s attorneys moved for attorney fees under Cal. Code Civ. Prov. §1021.5. The Court found it was an important right affecting the public interest, for warnings on their use is significant considering the growing prevalence as a law enforcement weapon.
Because the verdict in this case has caused police departments across the nation and the world to heed the risks of prolonged and repeated deployment of Taser electrical current, the lawsuit had a significant benefit to the public or a large class of persons. Additionally, the private burden of the litigation transcended the personal interest because significant compensatory damages were not feasible and the availability of punitive damages was uncertain. Finally, the attorneys took the case on contingency and requiring the plaintiffs to pay their lawyers from the relatively small recovery would be contrary to the public interest in light of the benefits to the public. In refusing the City of Salinas’ costs for being a prevailing party, the Court said that such an award “substantially risks chilling future civil rights litigation” of this type. Thus, the plaintiff’s attorneys were awarded $1,423,127 in fees against TASER and Salinas’ motion for costs was denied. The plaintiffs were represented by attorney John Burton. See: Heston v. City of Salinas, USDC, N.D. California, Case No: C 05-03658 JW.

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Related legal case

Heston v. City of Salinas