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Liability against Taser for Negligence Upheld but $5.5 Million Damages Award Reversed

Liability against Taser for Negligence Upheld but $5.5 Million Damages Award Reversed

by David M. Reutter

In November 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s finding that Taser International was liable for negligence in the death of a teenager tased by a police officer. However, the appellate court reversed a $5.5 million damages award and ordered a new trial on damages. The case subsequently settled under confidential terms.

The appellate ruling resulted from a lawsuit over the March 20, 2008 death of 17-year-old Darryl W. Turner at a supermarket in Charlotte, North Carolina. As previously reported in PLN, police were called to the store when Turner became loud and disruptive after he was fired.

When he refused to follow a police officer’s order to “calm down,” the officer discharged two darts from an X26 taser into Turner’s chest. The officer held the trigger down for 37 seconds, releasing it five seconds after Turner collapsed to the ground. Turner was unresponsive and experiencing ventricular fibrillation when paramedics arrived; he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

His estate sued Taser, alleging negligence for failing to provide an adequate warning of the dangers of discharging a taser into the chest and shocking a suspect for a prolonged period of time. The jury found the company liable and entered an award of $10 million in compensatory damages. The district court initially reduced the award to $7.5 million, further reduced it to $6.15 million, then deducted a $625,000 settlement paid to Turner’s estate by the City of Charlotte and $40,000 paid by the supermarket’s workers’ compensation policy, for a net award of around $5.5 million. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.46; Jan. 2012, p.42].

On appeal, Taser challenged a ruling by the district court that prevented the company from presenting a contributory negligence defense. The Fourth Circuit said the application of such a defense under the circumstances in this case “would absolve [Taser] of its responsibility to provide adequate warnings to persons using ... tasers, and effectively would grant [Taser] immunity in North Carolina negligence actions that are based on police use of a taser on a suspect resisting arrest.”

The Fourth Circuit also rejected Taser’s argument that it was entitled to a directed verdict because it had not been shown that the company failed to warn users to use tasers in a different manner. The evidence at trial indicated the company’s training manuals instructed users to “aim the taser at the suspect’s chest,” and stated such use “could not cause cardiac arrest.”

Taser, however, had the results of studies conducted in 2005 and 2006 which found “the taser’s electrical pulses can ‘capture’ cardiac rhythms, potentially leading to ventricular fibrillation.” The studies further found that aiming the taser at areas other than a subject’s chest “reduced significantly” the risk of fibrillation. Yet the company failed to issue warnings about the risk of cardiac arrest if tasers are aimed at the chest until 2009, over a year after Turner’s death. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.34].

Further, Taser’s position that it had adequately warned against misuse of its stun guns due to prolonged deployment of an electrical current was rejected by the Court of Appeals. The Court found the verdict was supported by evidence that the company did not give “precise guidance” on “the safe length of a [taser] discharge cycle.”

While the appellate court affirmed the jury’s finding of liability, it ordered a new trial on damages, holding that the evidence failed to show a “reasonable level of certainty” that the loss of Turner’s “services, care, and companionship” to his parents had a monetary value equivalent to the amount of the jury award as reduced by the district court. See: Fontenot v. Taser International, 736 F.3d 318 (4th Cir. 2013).

Following remand the parties settled the case before a retrial on damages was held, and entered a stipulation of dismissal in April 2014. An estimated 550 people have died nationwide after being shocked with tasers, though the company is rarely held liable. Typically, lawsuits over taser-related deaths are filed against the law enforcement officers involved and not Taser International; however, the company has faced dozens of lawsuits from police officers who suffered injuries after being shocked with tasers during training exercises.

Additional source: Dallas Morning News

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Related legal case

Fontenot v. Taser International