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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Legal power of Taser International is cause for concern at Canadian inquests

May 11, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — An Ohio court decision ordering a state coroner to remove all reference to Tasers from autopsy results is an "appalling interference," says British Columbia's chief medical officer.

The top medical examiner in the U.S. called the court ruling last week "dangerously close to intimidation."

But officials at a public inquiry currently underway in B.C. into the use of Tasers say their investigation will continue and their conclusions will not be swayed.

Art Vertlieb, commission counsel with the inquiry, said there will be no adverse findings made in the first phase of the inquiry, which is looking at Taser use in general.

But a second phase that will look specifically at the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport last fall is another matter.

"Once we get into the deal with the airport, that's going to be different. That's going to be a real inquiry in a more confrontational sense," he said.

"Under the rules in an inquiry in B.C. you can't say there's civil or criminal wrongdoing, but you can make adverse findings about people. It's right in the act."

The maker of Taser shock weapons sued the medical examiner of one Ohio county after she named the use of their stun guns as a contributing factor in three deaths in her jurisdiction.

Taser, which has an impressive line-up of lawyers on staff and a stunning legal winning streak of 68 and 0, asked the court to force the chief medical examiner to remove any reference to the use of a stun gun as a contributing factor in the deaths.

While the chief coroner of B.C. declined comment, the province's chief medical officer was blunt.

"I think this is appalling interference in transparency, in trying to find out what actually is going on," said Dr. Perry Kendall.

He could not recall similar legal cases involving Taser in Canada, but Kendall said he hoped the Ohio ruling is appealed.

"I doubt that it will stand. At least I hope it wouldn't stand."

Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, defended the company's record and vigorous defence of its product - and said the company is watching the public inquiry now underway in Vancouver.

"You can't miss it. It's getting quite a bit of coverage in Canada," he said.

The second phase of the inquiry will specifically examine the circumstances of Dziekanski's death and will be followed by a coroner's inquest.

Kent Stewart, chief coroner of Saskatchewan and chairman of the Chief Coroners and Chief Medical Examiners of Canada, says the U.S. ruling is cause for concern.

But he said coroners and medical examiners in Canada have a job to do and won't be swayed by Taser International's legal juggernaut.

"Certainly, every chief coroner and every medical examiner in Canada would be concerned," Stewart said from Regina.

"But we have to recognize that coroners and medical examiners in Canada have a legal responsibility to investigate deaths and make findings including establishing the cause of death.

"More importantly, those decisions must be fair and impartial and made without fear and bias. So that (ruling) does concern us."

The judge in the Ohio ruling was clear: "There is simply no medical, scientific, or electrical evidence to support the conclusion that the Taser X26 had anything to do with the death of (the three men)."

The judge ordered the Ohio medical examiner to change her official autopsy reports and death certificates for each of the three men.

John Manley, chief prosecutor in the case, told The Canadian Press from his Akron, Ohio, office that Taser is a formidable force in court.

"They are undefeated in terms of litigation," he said, referring to the cases, which involved wrongful death, product liability and failure-to-warn issues.

Only two of them involved findings by medical examiners, he said.

"They have plenty of money and they've got quite a large stable of expert witnesses. They are a formidable force as their record would suggest."

Taser brought in nine expert witnesses for the Ohio case, including the company CEO, cardiologists, doctors, electrophysiologists, and forensic pathologists.

Most of their experts witnesses have testified for the company in other legal challenges, said Manley.

Tuttle said Thomas Smith, the chairman of the board for Taser, will testify Monday at the Taser inquiry in Vancouver.

He was reluctant to comment on what action Taser might take in Canada if an inquiry or inquest was to make any "adverse finding" against the weapon.

"I couldn't even guess. This has only occurred twice and we've been around as a company for 14 years," he said.

The company is also awaiting a coroner's inquest into Dziekanski's death at the Vancouver airport, which will take place after the inquiry. RCMP are also investigating the incident.

"This is way too soon to be speculating on anything that we would do. (There is) an investigation (into Dziekanski) that's ongoing and we want to co-operate as much as possible," Tuttle said.

He said that there have been more than one million "applications" of Tasers on volunteers and in "field applications" and only twice have medical examiner's reports cited Tasers.

"Look at our 14-year track history and this has occurred twice... and that includes more than a million exposures to the Taser system in the field and with volunteers."

1 comment:

LarryE said...

From what I understand, Taser Int. has settled several cases out of court. If so, it's 68-0 record is not quite as impressive at it seems, because those only represent cases that went to a final verdict.

It'd also be interesting to know in how many of those 68 cases Taser was prepared to settle but no agreement was reached.

All of which is saying that brandishing the 68-0 stat may well be just more corporate spin.