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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Taser gets litigious over suggestions the device causes deaths

November 21, 2007
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - Anyone who launches a lawsuit against Taser International Inc. or suggests a Taser electronic device was involved in a death are liable to get another shock when the company brings down the full force of its legal team.

Taser International is currently named as a defendant in at least 39 wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits where a Taser was used.

The company is aggressive in defending itself in such lawsuits and has entered into agreements to prevent its own insurance provider from settling out of court. It has even filed a lawsuit demanding an Ohio coroner change her conclusion that a Taser was a contributing factor in the deaths of two men. Taser also sent out legal demand letters to 60 organizations after its latest public relations black eye where a Polish man was jolted with a Taser by RCMP at the Vancouver International Airport and died minutes later.

"We are taken aback by the number of media outlets that have irresponsibly published conclusive headlines blaming the Taser device...as the cause of death before completion of the investigation," Taser Chairman Tom Smith said in a news release.

The amateur video showed RCMP officers zapping Robert Dziekanski with a Taser while he screamed and writhed on the floor at the arrivals area in the international terminal. The footage was seen around the world on TV and Internet and provoked an outcry against the use of the stun guns by police.

"Historically, medical science and forensic analysis has shown that these deaths are attributable to other factors and not the low-energy electrical discharge of the Taser," Smith said in a news release.

The firm's 2006 annual report said Taser assembled a team of world-class medical experts and additional legal resources to provide an efficient means of defending the company against numerous product liability claims. Last November, Taser filed a lawsuit against the chief medical examiner of Summit County, Ohio "to correct erroneous cause of death determinations relating to the autopsy reports prepared by medical examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler," stated Taser's latest quarterly report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Kohler listed the Taser as being a contributing factor in the deaths of two men. "We asked the court to order a hearing on the appropriate causes of death," said the statement. "And to order changes in the medical examiner's cause of death determinations for both." A trial date has been set for April, 2008.

"I think it's because the manufacture and distribution of this device is big business," said Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward. "There's a lot of money at stake and they have the resources to hire the best PR, the best lawyers and the best experts that money can buy."

Ward is the lawyer for the family of Robert Bagnell, who died in June, 2004 after a confrontation involving Vancouver police officers who used a Taser in an attempt to subdue Bagnell. The officers "repeatedly shot Robert Wayne Bagnell...with two weapons manufactured by the defendant Taser International Inc. and described as X26 Tasers, thereby causing or contributing to his death," said a statement of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court on behalf of Bagnell's mother and sister.

Taser's statement of defence filed in the case denies that the death was caused or contributed to by any Taser device. It pointed to a report that Bagnell died of restraint-associated cardiac arrest due to self-induced acute cocaine intoxication.

"To the extent that Taser has used the term 'non-lethal' in respect of the Model X26 at any material time, the term is with reference to the United States of America Department of Defence's definition of 'non-lethal weapon," the Taser statement claims. None of the allegations have been proven in court and the lawsuit is still in its early stages.

Taser's latest quarterly report said the company had three lawsuits where the costs of legal defence was in excess of it's liability insurance deductibles. "The company may settle a lawsuit in situations where a settlement can be obtained for nuisance value," the report states. It cites a June, 2007 settlement in a training-injury lawsuit brought on by a law enforcement officer. In fact, 10 such training-injury lawsuits - including one filed in B.C. Supreme Court by RCMP officer Dan Husband - have been filed against Taser.

No one from Taser responded after several requests for an interview. "The company does not identify or comment on which specific lawsuits have been settled or the amount of any settlement," stated its quarterly report.

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