Using tactics reminiscent of those once employed by tobacco companies, Taser International has for years engaged in a high-stakes campaign designed to deceive the public into believing that the stun guns it manufactures, known formally as Electronic Control Devices, are non-lethal and safe.
At least that’s the picture that emerges after Taser agreed, in August 2010, to pay $2.85 million to settle a product liability suit brought by the brother and conservator of Steven Butler, who suffered anoxic brain injury after a police officer shot him in the chest with a Taser Model X26 when he refused to get off a bus in Watsonville, California in October 2006. Butler’s heart rhythm was disrupted for about 18 minutes after he was Tasered, and he stopped breathing.
By financing scientific and medical research purporting to show the absence of serious adverse effects from Taser-delivered electric shocks, Taser has, until recently, successfully defended itself in lawsuit after lawsuit filed by people who have suffered debilitating injuries after being shot with a Taser, or by the survivors of those who have died. Tasers are used extensively by police and sheriff’s departments, and also by prison and jail staff. [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.34; Oct. 2006, p.1; June 2005, p.1].
Taser’s invincibility in the courtroom is beginning to show signs of weakening, however. The settlement with Butler, who now needs 24-hour medical care, is the first time that Taser has agreed to settle a product liability lawsuit, according to G. Dana Scruggs, Butler’s lead attorney. In 2008, Taser lost a product liability case that was taken to trial by the family of Robert Heston, Jr., who died after being Tasered several times by a Salinas police officer in February 2005. The Heston case marked the first time a Taser victim had succeeded in holding the company liable at trial. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.25; Oct. 2008, p.36].
In settling the Butler lawsuit, Taser did not admit to any liability. The amount of the settlement agreement was made public after Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Jeff Almquist, citing the “therapeutic value” of leaving the court’s business open to public scrutiny, rejected attempts by Taser’s lawyers to keep the court documents sealed. The terms of the settlement are otherwise subject to a confidentiality agreement.
According to Scruggs, Taser decided to settle because “they were going to lose this case. We understood the science and medicine. We retained experts that understood the science and medicine. They were going to explain exactly what happened and how the Taser caused it to happen.” Taser has since changed its training instructions to specify that suspects should not be Tasered in the chest. See: Butler v. Taser International, Santa Cruz Superior Court (CA), Case No. CV 161436.
Additional sources: Santa Cruz Sentinel, www.allbusiness.com
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Related legal case
Butler v. Taser International
|Cite||Santa Cruz Superior Court (CA), Case No. CV 161436|
|Level||State Trial Court|