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TASER Liability Verdict Upheld, but Remittitur Granted

A North Carolina U.S. District Court has held, in ruling on a post-trial motion, that a jury’s liability verdict against TASER International related to the death of a juvenile shocked by one of the company’s TASER devices was reasonable, but granted remittitur of the $10 million jury award after finding it to be excessive.

The products liability case against TASER involved the March 20, 2008 death of Darryl Turner, 17, who died shortly after being hit in the chest with a TASER Model X26 Electronic Control Device (ECD). Earlier that day, Turner was confronted about stealing food from the Food Lion store where he worked as a bagger-cashier; he was fired for insubordination.

Turner refused to leave the store, and police were called after he became defiant and confrontational. When Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department officer Jerry Dawson arrived, he found Turner yelling and cursing at the store manager. Prior to Dawson’s arrival, Turner had shoved a Western Union display off a counter, threw an umbrella at the manager and advanced on him.

Witness recollections of what Dawson said to Turner were in dispute, but all agreed that when Turner moved towards Dawson the officer fired his X26 ECD, hitting Turner in the chest with a 37-second jolt of electricity. He continued to walk towards Dawson and grabbed a small rack that he threw on the floor before collapsing.

When Turner failed to move or respond to another officer’s command to put his hands behind his back, Dawson activated the X26 again for a five-second shock. Turner went into ventricular fibrillation (VF) sometime after being Tased. Efforts at CPR and defibrillation failed, and he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. His family filed suit in federal court.

In July 2011, following a six-day trial, the jury awarded $10 million to Turner’s estate. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.42]. TASER then filed a Rule 50 motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial or remittitur. Many of TASER’s arguments had been rejected in pretrial motions, and the district court upheld its prior rulings.

One of those rulings was the court’s refusal to allow TASER to present a contributory negligence defense, as established law precluded that defense because Turner had not used the TASER himself. Next, the district court rejected TASER’s causation argument.

At trial, the cause of Turner’s death was cited as the 37-second TASER shock. The court found that the evidence showed VF occurred in animals and a human with a pacemaker when they were Tased for 24 to 25 seconds, and “[f]or further human case studies, TASER need look no further than the unfortunate facts surrounding Turner’s death.”

The district court further rejected TASER’s argument that its warnings at the time the TASER was sold to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, and at the time of Turner’s death, were adequate. Despite the fact that studies had shown there was a danger of ECD shocks to the chest, TASER’s training materials instructed officers to aim for the “center of mass” and depicted chest shots as examples.

The court also upheld its rulings to exclude Turner’s use of marijuana, which was raised because he had some on his person at the time of his death, because there was no evidence that he had used it. Having found that TASER’s liability was properly decided by the jury, the district court turned to whether the $10 million award was excessive.

Despite TASER’s efforts to prove otherwise, the evidence showed Turner to be a “very promising” young man. Nevertheless, the court found the jury award to be excessive and reduced it to a present value of $6.1 million. It then reduced that award by $625,000 – the amount Turner’s estate received from the City of Charlotte – and by the $40,000 received from Food Lion’s workers’ compensation plan. Thus, the remittitur judgment against TASER totaled $5,491,503.65.

Turner’s estate accepted the reduced award on April 20, 2012. TASER has since filed an appeal with the Fourth Circuit, which remains pending. See: Fontenot v. TASER International, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NC), Case No. 3:10-cv-00125-RJC-DCK.

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Related legal case

Fontenot v. TASER International