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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ex-Taser worker alleges she was threatened

November 22, 2007
Adrian Humphreys , National Post, with files from Shannon Kari and Kelly Grant, National Post

Taser International says it "aggressively defends our products in all litigation brought against the company."

Amid all the litigation involving Taser International -- 100 claims against the company alleging wrongful death or injury and lawsuits launched by the company against coroners, claiming their popular stun gun was wrongly named as a cause of death -- lies a case with distinction: startling allegations by a former company employee.

Pam Schreiner, who worked for the Arizona-based maker of the electric-shock weapons in 2004, says she was threatened and intimidated, including her home being shot at, after she saw company officials intentionally shredding Taser injury reports during a legal proceeding, according to court documents.

"Since leaving Taser International, I have lived in fear of what Taser International will do to me. The company has enormous resources and connections through law enforcement," Ms. Schreiner says in an affidavit sworn this summer and filed in a court in Georgia.

"I have been verbally threatened by people hired by Taser to harass and intimidate me. I was told by the two Chandler [Arizona] police officers that they had conducted surveillance of my residence, followed me around and gone through my garbage," her affidavit says.

"I was confronted at the grocery store by someone I had never met and told that it would not be a good idea for me to be testifying against Taser. In the summer of 2005, shortly before giving my deposition in [a previous case against Taser], a window was shot out of my residence."

Ms. Schreiner's allegations have not been tested in court nor previously reported. They also come with a firm denial by Taser, which called them "a complete sham" and "wild accusations."

Lawyers for Taser, who are defending against the Georgia suit, filed weighty legal arguments trying to keep a jury from hearing Ms. Schreiner's allegations. Taser said in court she resigned after working for nine months when she was accused of providing false information during a corporate investigation and that her affidavit contradicts her earlier statements.

A judge in Georgia denied Taser's motion, however, and Ms. Schreiner is scheduled to give sworn deposition in the case next month.

The Georgia case that includes Ms. Schreiner's allegations involves claims of a debilitating back injury sustained by David Wilson, a former Georgia State Trooper, during his training on how to use the device.

That case, launched last year, is similar to one filed by RCMP Constable Dan Husband, who was stationed in Revelstoke, B.C., when he suffered a back injury after a voluntary Taser strike, he claims. Officers are encouraged to experience a Taser shot as part of their training, the suit says. Const. Husband's suit was filed a year ago but only made public this week in the National Post.

There have been at least 10 training-injury lawsuits filed against Taser since 2003, according to the company. They are among the more than 100 product-liability suits it has faced, according to the company's most recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. stock market regulator.

The company's report lists wrongful deaths, training-related injuries to officers and injuries during arrests as being among the claims alleged.

Its litigation record is impressive: 61 lawsuits have been dismissed; at least two brought verdicts in Taser's favour; and 39 suits are pending, including Const. Husband's and another filed in Canada, regarding the death in B.C. of Robert Bagnell in 2004.

The company makes no apologies for its litigation rigour. "Taser International remains adamant in our position of not settling suspect injury or death lawsuits," Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice-president of communications, said in a statement. "Taser International's products have been demonstrated by numerous medical studies to be safe and effective. Taser International therefore aggressively defends our products in all litigation brought against the company with the best legal, scientific and medical expertise available."

Such a burden of pending product-liability litigation makes some of the allegations made by Ms. Schreiner particularly offensive to Taser's lawyers.

It is the issue of injuries to officers during training that was part of Ms. Schreiner's workload at Taser, she claims in her affidavit; she was asked to create a database of volunteer exposure reports made by officers, which included notations of any claimed injuries. "While creating the spreadsheet, I became aware that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of injuries noted," she said in her affidavit.

When she told Taser officials of this, they "became visibly concerned and upset," she claimed. "They then shredded most of the reports showing injuries, bringing in Dumpsters to dispose of the paper."

The company would not comment on any of the specific pending lawsuits, including the Georgia and Canadian cases, or on the allegations of Ms. Schreiner. "Taser International does not comment on current litigation," Mr. Tuttle said.

Questions about Ms. Schreiner's allegations put to Cynthia Noles Johnson, a U.S. lawyer representing the former Georgia state trooper, drew a similar response.

Taser does, however, comment quickly and vigorously when it feels its products have been maligned. After an amateur video was widely distributed this month of the agonizing end of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who died in Vancouver airport after RCMP officers zapped him with a Taser, the company sent more than 60 legal demand letters to media outlets seeking correction of what it called "false and misleading headlines." The company took issue with the term "Taser death."

"There is absolutely no evidence that the Taser device was the cause of this man's death," says one such letter, from Douglas Klint, Taser's vice-president and general counsel, sent to the National Post last week.

After Roland M. Kohr, a coroner, spoke about his concerns with the death of an Indiana inmate who had been jolted with a Taser, the company sued him for defamation, product disparagement and other claims in 2005. He is not alone. In November, 2006, Taser filed a lawsuit against a chief medical examiner in Ohio.

The suit seeks to "correct erroneous cause-of-death determinations relating to the autopsy reports prepared by medical examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler, which associate the Taser device as being a contributing factor in the deaths of Richard Holcomb and Dennis Hyde," according to the company's filing with the SEC. Taser wants all references to Taser as causing or contributing to the causes of death removed. Both cases are pending. Mr. Kohr referred questions to his lawyer, who said he was too busy working on another trial to answer questions on the case.

This week, Ms. Johnson, the lawyer representing the Georgia state trooper, filed an emergency motion for a protective order from the court regarding the expected deposition of Ms. Schreiner. The woman did not wish to testify in the Phoenix area, "due to the previous threats and harassment by members of the law enforcement community in the Phoenix area on Taser's payroll," the motion says.

Since then, Taser has been asking numerous "intrusive and harassing questions" about Ms. Schreiner's finances and private medical history, according to Ms. Johnson's motion. The company has subpoenaed her tax returns, bank account statements, phone bills and documents reflecting "your diagnosis of and treatment for cancer" for the years 2004 and 2005.

They also seek any documents exchanged by Ms. Schreiner with investigative reporters and Amnesty International. The human rights monitor has questioned the appropriateness of Taser use. The organization is calling on police to suspend the use of Tasers until an independent study can be conducted. The company says adequate evidence shows its value and safety.

Ms. Johnson is asking the court to allow Ms. Schreiner to travel to Georgia to give her evidence, at Taser's expense. Taser has not yet replied to the motion.

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