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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Police in 5 states sue Taser in past 2 weeks

Robert Anglen
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Police officers in five states filed lawsuits against Scottsdale-based Taser International over the past two weeks claiming they were seriously injured after being shocked with the electronic stun gun during training classes.

Among them is a Missouri police chief who says he suffered heart damage and two strokes when he volunteered to be shocked while hooked up to a cardiac monitor as a way to demonstrate the safety of the Taser to his officers.

Four of the suits were filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of officers in Florida, Kansas, New Mexico and Ohio who claim they suffered "severe and permanent" injuries, including multiple spinal fractures, burns, a shoulder dislocation and soft-tissue injuries. advertisement

In St. Louis on Thursday, Hallsville Police Chief Pete Herring filed a lawsuit claiming "painful, permanent and progressive" hearing and vision loss and neurological damage in addition to the strokes and cardiac damage.

Chief agreed to do it

Herring's lawyer, Spencer Eisenmenger, said Friday that the chief agreed to be the first officer shocked during an April 2004 training class for the department's newly purchased Tasers.

"Chief Herring was attached to an EKG when he was shocked with a Taser . . . He agreed as chief of police to be the first person shocked," Eisenmenger said. "(Hallsville) has no Taser program right now."

The suits challenge Taser's principal safety claim and accuse the company of misleading law enforcement about the extent of potential injuries. They also accuse company officials of concealing reports of injuries to at least a dozen other law enforcement officers.

Taser has marketed the weapons to 7,000 law enforcement agencies. Company officials have not only encouraged police officers to experience Taser shocks, they have used those shocks to promote the gun's safety, claiming that 100,000 officers have been shocked without a single serious injury.

Taser statement

Taser Vice President Steve Tuttle said in a statement Friday that the company would fight all of the lawsuits.

"We are aware of the filings in Arizona and intend to aggressively fight any such claims," he said.

"We have not been served papers regarding the Missouri filing but will aggressively defend this matter."

In an Aug. 3 memo to law enforcement officials, Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith acknowledged that, "we've had a small number of volunteers experience injuries similar to athletic exertion." But he said realistic training carries a risk of injury and suggested that the company should not be held liable for those injuries.

"Imagine if the shoe manufacturer Nike was sued every time an athlete sprained an ankle," Smith wrote.

Phoenix lawyer John Dillingham, who represents the police officers in Florida, Kansas, New Mexico and Ohio, said Smith's comparison is ridiculous.

Not the same as Nike

"This is not the same as wearing a Nike tennis shoe and spraining an ankle. It's more like breaking an ankle every time you tie the laces on a Nike shoe," he said.

"Every time an officer takes a hit from Taser, they are at risk."

In their lawsuits, the four officers allege they were injured in training classes between August 2003 and October 2004. They say that Taser instructors did not reveal any medical information suggesting that the guns could cause injuries and they claim the company has ignored important research suggesting the guns could be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

Some allegations

The 104-page complaints filed Aug. 5 each allege that Taser was aware of injuries to other officers but did nothing to warn police departments, "knowing full well that such a reported serious injury would have devastating ramifications on its safety claims and, most importantly, its most-effective sales tool, the law enforcement training program."

Specifically, the lawsuits point to the injury of former Maricopa County sheriff's Deputy Samuel Powers, who filed the first product liability suit against Taser in February 2004 and claims that his back was fractured when he was shocked during a training exercise two years earlier.

Misreporting the facts?

Although Taser officials were notified of Powers' fractured back, four of the lawsuits accuse the company of continually misreporting the injury to shareholders and the public as a minor shoulder injury, even after a doctor hired by Taser concluded in September that a one-second Taser jolt was responsible for Powers fractured back.

Dillingham said that if Taser had taken steps to warn officers in September of the possibility of injury, other officers might have avoided being injured.

He pointed to Belle Glade (Fla.) police Officer John Gerdon, who claims in his lawsuit that he suffered spinal fractures and burns when he was shocked during a training class in October.

He said in his suit that Taser instructors and training materials all told him the stun gun had not and could not cause an injury.

In the Missouri suit, Police Chief Herring said he was given the same assurances before he demonstrated the device.

Eisenmenger said the chief, who is 6-foot-10 and weighs 300 pounds, insisted that he be hooked up to a machine that measures cardiac functions to show other officers that the stun gun was safe.

"He was assured by the defendant in this case that no harm could come of it," he said.

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