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North Carolina Jury Awards $10 Million in Wrongful Death Suit Against Taser

by Matt Clarke

On July 19, 2011, a federal jury in North Carolina awarded $10 million to the parents and estate of a teenager who died after being shocked with a Taser fired by a police officer. The defendant in the case was Taser International, Inc.

In March 2008, 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner was involved in a verbal altercation with store managers at a Food Lion supermarket in Charlotte, North Carolina where he worked. When Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Jerry Dawson, Jr. arrived at the scene there had been no violence or threats of violence, but Turner had knocked over a display and thrown an umbrella. Dawson issued a command and, as Turner turned and moved toward him, Dawson shot him in the chest with a Taser Model X26.

Dawson held the trigger of the Taser down for 37 seconds, causing a high-voltage electrical current to be applied across Turner’s chest. Turner collapsed on the floor. He was unresponsive when a backup officer arrived and ordered him to place his hands behind his back, so Dawson triggered another shock, this time for 5 seconds.

The officers noticed that Turner was not breathing and summoned medical assistance. Paramedics quickly determined that Turner’s heart was in ventricular fibrillation; they tried to revive him, but were too late and Turner died. Dawson was suspended for five days and retrained on Taser use.

In 2009, the City of Charlotte settled all claims against the city and the police department in connection with Turner’s death for $625,000. Turner’s parents then filed a wrongful death suit in state court against Taser International, Inc. The suit was removed to federal court. Taser filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted as to the issue of punitive damages because the plaintiffs had failed to prove willful or wanton conduct.
Summary judgment was denied as to liability, and the court also denied Taser’s request to exclude the plaintiffs’ expert witness.

The expert Taser tried to have excluded was a highly-qualified physician and medical school professor who had authored numerous articles and textbooks dealing with the effects of electrical shocks on the heart. His conclusion was that the “X26 discharge can cause cardiac arrest by capturing the cardiac rhythm at very rapid rates, and precipitating ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation,” especially if the Taser electrodes struck the chest area.

This contrasted with Taser’s training material, which stated that Taser shocks had “no effect on heart rhythms.” The training material did warn against repeated or sustained shocks, but only because they might temporarily inhibit breathing. Also, Taser had issued new training recommendations in October 2009, instructing officers not to aim directly for the chest when deploying Tasers.

After hearing the testimony at trial, watching a videotape of the incident and reviewing Taser’s training materials, the jury found that Taser unreasonably failed to provide adequate warning or instruction, which created an unreasonably dangerous condition that Taser knew, or should have known, would pose a substantial risk of harm and was the proximate cause of Turner’s death. The jury also found that Dawson did not operate the Taser contrary to Taser’s inadequate instructions and that he could not have known of the existence of the risk of harming Turner when he used the Taser.

The jury awarded $10 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiffs, who were represented by Charlotte, North Carolina attorneys Ken Harris and Charles Everage, and California attorneys John F. Baker, John Burton and Peter Williamson.

“Hopefully, this verdict will sound the alarm to police officers around the world that firing these weapons into the chests of people should be avoided,” said Burton. Taser announced it would appeal the verdict. See: Turner v. Taser International, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 3:10-cv-00125-RJC-DCK.

The day after the $10 million jury award, Charlotte police used a Taser on 21-year-old Lareko Williams, who was in a physical confrontation with a woman at a light rail station. Williams was pronounced dead an hour later, and the police department suspended the use of Tasers the next day.

Charlotte City Attorney Mac McCarley said the city and its police department continue to support the use of Tasers, though. “It is still a very effective, nonlethal force to control a situation,” he said, apparently without irony.

However, in August 2011, following an internal review of Taser use by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, Police Chief Rodney Monroe said officers would not be allowed to carry Tasers until a second review by the Police Executive Research Forum had been conducted.

The following month the City of Charlotte voted to purchase 1,600 new Taser models, at a cost of $1.83 million, which have safety features designed to reduce the risk of killing or seriously injuring people who are Tasered. The new Tasers, Model X2, have a 5-second limit on the amount of time someone can be shocked. “That five-second limit is critical,” said Monroe. “No matter how long the officer may hold the trigger down, five seconds is as long as it will cycle itself.”

Then again, an officer can inflict multiple 5-second shocks, one after the other, simply by pulling the trigger over and over. Most of the $1.86 million to purchase the new Tasers will come from the city’s general fund, while $400,000 will be paid from an asset forfeiture account.

Additional sources: Charlotte Observer, www.aboutlawsuits.com

 

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