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TASER Avoids Liability in Three Deaths by Suing Medical Examiner

TASER Avoids Liability in Three Deaths by Suing Medical Examiner

by John E. Dannenberg

Arizona-based TASER International, Inc. (TASER) was cleared of liability in the unrelated deaths of three drug-afflicted Ohio men who died shortly after being shocked with X-26 Taser stun guns during their apprehension by police. TASER had sued the Summit County, Ohio Medical Examiner, challenging her findings that Tasers had contributed to each of the deaths.

Common Pleas Court Judge Ted Schneiderman ruled there was no evidence showing that Taser shocks caused the deaths, and in a stunning ruling, ordered the Death Certificates and Reports of Autopsy to be amended to reflect only “accidental” or “undetermined” causes of death.

The thrust of the litigation was that it was drug overdoses combined with pre-existing cardiac disease that doomed the victims, not the multiple Taser shocks to which they had been subjected. But the fact remains that the men died after being shocked, not before. Thus, the conclusion that Tasering played no part in the deaths ignores the temporal inference to the contrary.

Dennis S. Hyde died while committing a burglary in Akron. He bled extensively from cuts sustained when he broke a window to gain entry to an occupied residence. Police found him hiding behind a furnace in the basement and Tasered him numerous times while trying to coax him to surrender, but he was plainly delirious. Shortly after Hyde was finally handcuffed and shackled, he died. The autopsy report listed death from multiple causes, including cardiac arrhythmia, acute drug intoxication, electrical pulse incapacitation with psychiatric disorder, and arterial blood loss. TASER, joined by the City of Akron, sued to have all references to “electrical pulse incapacitation” deleted.

Richard Holcomb was trespassing on private property, jumping up and down like he was on a pogo-stick. He was cornered by police, who observed his plainly drug-induced delirium. After they had repeatedly Tasered him and he was lying on the ground cuffed behind his back, he went limp and had no pulse. The Medical Examiner found that Holcomb was in a state of drug-induced psychosis and had cardiovascular damage from chronic drug abuse. Although the Medical Examiner opined that the Tasering contributed to his death “to some extent,” she admitted, “How much, I can’t know.”

Mark D. McCullaugh died while in an Ohio county jail. He had a history of mental illness and was reportedly pacing his cell while naked and injuring himself. He was Tasered, handcuffed, shackled and injected with a sedative. Minutes later he died. The Medical Examiner found McCullaugh’s cardiac arrest was due to asphyxia by mechanical, chemical and physical restraint.

TASER argued that no evidence supported a direct nexus between the application of the Taser shocks and the moment of death. Reviewing the evidence, the judge agreed. That is, while multiple causes contributed to each death, the Tasering event was not found by itself alone to have been lethal. Accordingly, Judge Schneiderman found for TASER and ordered that the death certificates be amended to delete any inference of causation by electric shock or “homicide.”

This result is nonetheless very unsettling. Uncontroverted evidence showed the victims were under the influence of drugs. But it is no secret in the history of 300 people who have died since 1999 after being shocked with Tasers that many of those individuals were highly intoxicated at the time, too. What is disturbing is the implication of the Ohio ruling that being on drugs while having pre-existing health conditions amounts to legal authorization to be killed by Taser-wielding police officers. See: TASER International, Inc. v. Chief Medical Officer of Summit County, Ohio, Summit County Court of Common Pleas, Case No. CV 2006-11-7421 (May 2, 2008).

In an ideal world, the police could make a competent evaluation of each suspect before deciding if it was medically sound to Taser them. Given the exigency of police operations, this is unrealistic. But the statistics don’t lie – death following Tasering is all too common. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.1]. Also, it is certainly not a capital crime to be high on drugs. The incremental risk of death in such circumstances is not worth the convenience to police of having the option to use a 50,000-volt stun weapon.

While Summit County may appeal the court’s ruling, the ultimate outcome will likely be economic – when TASER’s profits are tempered by losses from successful lawsuits. For example, a recent $6.2 million wrongful death verdict against the company. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.25]. TASER’s stock has plunged almost 74% in the past year, to $3.98 a share as of December 2008.

Additional sources: Arizona Republic, Yahoo Finance, TASER press release

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Related legal case

TASER International, Inc. v. Chief Medical Officer of Summit County, Ohio

The PDF court opinion is available in the briefbank under Court Orders.