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Monday, April 21, 2008

Taser firm sues medical examiner over her rulings

April 22, 2008
Karen Farkas, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

Tasers don't kill, say the makers of the stun guns, so they went to court Monday to protect the company's reputation.

Taser International Inc. wants a judge to order Summit County Medical Examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler to change her rulings that "electrical pulse incapacitation" contributed to three men's deaths.

A hearing began Monday in Summit County Common Pleas Court before visiting Judge Ted Schneiderman and is expected to last several days. Experts for Taser and Kohler will testify whether any medical, scientific or engineering evidence can demonstrate a Taser can cause or contribute to a death.

In Ohio, the ruling of a medical examiner is assumed to be presumptively valid, John Manley, chief counsel of the civil division of the Summit County prosecutor's office, said last week. Manley is representing the medical examiner in the trial.

"It means the other side has the burden of proof to prove it is not," he said. He said such cases are uncommon.

Taser use has been controversial. Police use them to immobilize combative suspects, generally when nothing else short of deadly force would work. The weapon carries a 50,000-volt charge delivered through two barbed wires shot from the gun.

The company has successfully fought numerous wrongful death claims filed by families.

In the Summit County case, the focus is Kohler's ruling of the cause of death of three men. All three had other contributing factors - including drug use or heart disease - but Tasers were used on them before they died.

Dennis Hyde, 30, died Jan. 5, 2005, during a struggle with Akron police. Three officers used Tasers. Hyde of Hartville had broken into a house through a window. Kohler ruled the electrical impulse of the stun gun was a contributing factor along with methamphetamine and blood loss from glass cuts. Akron joined Taser in its lawsuit for that case.

Richard Holcomb, 18, of Akron, died May 28, 2005, after he attacked a Springfield Township police officer in a pasture. She shot him four times with her Taser. The shots were a factor in his death, and he was also in a drug-induced psychosis form using methamphetamine and Ecstasy, the medical examiner's office ruled.

Holcomb's family settled a wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court with the township and the officer, but a claim against Taser was dropped by the family.

Taser also wants Schneiderman to order Kohler to delete any reference about whether a stun gun contributed to the death of Mark McCullaugh, who died in the Summit County Jail. McCullaugh, 28, died Aug. 20, 2006, during a struggle with deputies, who used Tasers and pepper spray on him.

Kohler ruled McCullaugh died of asphyxia due to the "combined effects of chemical, mechanical and electrical restraint."

Five deputes were indicted in McCullaugh's death. Their trials are pending.

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