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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

More on: U.S. judge orders references to tasers removed from autopsies

This despicable and scandalous development in an Ohio court last week has barely registered on the radar screen south of the border (notwithstanding Robert Anglen's excellent report on the weekend). My hat is off to the CANADIAN MEDIA who see this for the travesty of justice that it is.

May 7, 2008

Ohio judge orders stun gun references removed from autopsies

AKRON, Ohio — An Ohio medical examiner must change her autopsy findings to delete any reference that stun guns contributed to the deaths of three people involved in confrontations with law enforcement officers, a judge has ruled.

The decision was a victory for Taser International Inc., which had challenged rulings by Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler, including a case in which five sheriff's deputies are charged in the death of a jail inmate who was restrained by the wrists and ankles and hit with pepper spray and a stun gun.

Kohler ruled that the 2006 death of Mark McCullaugh Jr., 28, was a homicide and that he died from asphyxiation due to the "combined effects of chemical, mechanical and electrical restraint."

Visiting Judge Ted Schneiderman said in his ruling last week that there was no expert evidence to indicate that Taser devices impaired McCullaugh's respiration. "More likely, the death was due to a fatal cardiac arrhythmia brought on by severe heart disease," the judge wrote.

Schneiderman ordered Kohler to rule McCullaugh's death undetermined and to delete any references to homicide.

The judge also said references to stun guns contributing to the deaths of two other men must be deleted from autopsy findings.
Dennis Hyde, 30, died in 2005 after a confrontation with Akron police, and Richard Holcomb, 18, died the same year after being hit with a stun by a police officer in suburban Springfield Township.

It was unclear what affect Schneiderman's ruling may have on the upcoming criminal trial of the five sheriff's deputies. One of them, Deputy Stephen Krendick, is charged with murder. Other deputies face charges of reckless homicide or felonious assault. All have pleaded not guilty.

Krendick's trial is scheduled to begin June 16. A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office, which is handling the case, said its lawyers are prepared to go forward.

Steve Tuttle, vice-president of communications for Arizona-based Taser International, said the company was pleased with the Schneiderman's ruling, which came down Friday.

"Taser International believed from the beginning that these determinations of cause of death must be supported by facts, medical research and scientific evidence," Tuttle said.

John Manley, a Summit County prosecutor who represented Kohler, said the judge's order went too far. The county is considering an appeal, he said after the decision came down.

"Taser is quite a force to be reckoned with and does everything to protect their golden egg, which is the Model X26," Manley said.

May 7, 2008
CBC News

U.S. court ruling on Tasers worries Canadian doctors

A court ruling in the United States about Tasers is causing concern in Canada's medical community. The U.S.-based manufacturer of the controversial stun guns, Taser International, has won a court order in Ohio that forces a medical examiner to change autopsy reports.

Dr. Lisa Kohler had found that electrical shocks from Tasers were partially to blame for the deaths of three men in separate confrontations with police.

Taser International launched and won a civil suit, forcing Kohler to delete any reference to the deaths being related to electric shocks, and to term them "accidental deaths."

Dr. Matthew Stanbrook of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) says the decision doesn't take into account the difficult of determining an exact cause of death in almost every case.

"If we were required to have at the level of scientific and medical certainty that something was the cause of death, before we were permitted to declare it, most of the people who died in North America would have died of unknown causes," Stanbrook said.

"It is a physician making their best judgment given all the facts available."

Stanbrook is deputy editor of the CMA Journal, which last week carried an editorial that expressed discontent with the current research into the effects of Taser use on suspects. The editorial said most of that work was done at the behest of Taser International and needed to be verified by independent researchers.

"New and independent research, both epidemiologic and biological, into whether Tasers can kill is essential to settle this issue," the editorial said.

Doctors and medical examiners in the United States have also expressed unease over the Ohio court decision.

Dr. Jeff Jentzen of the National Association of Medical Examiners said the case could affect other autopsy results.

"The physician shouldn't be threatened by individual companies attempting to preserve the reputation of their project," Jentzen said.

Taser International CEO Rick Smith told CBC News in January that medical examiners had to be sure of their facts because if they made what he called a careless opinion, they will be held accountable in court.

In submissions to the court in Ohio, Taser International said 68 wrongful-death or injury lawsuits involving Taser use have been dismissed or found in favour of the company.

May 6, 2008
Adrian Humphreys, NATIONAL POST

Taser win in court puts chill on doctors

“It is dangerously close to intimidation,” says group representing medical examiners

Taser won a court case in Ohio which forces medical examiners in that state to expunge any mention of the device as contributing to deaths of people in police custody.

A lawsuit by the makers of Taser stun guns has prompted an Ohio court to order a chief medical examiner to delete any reference to the use of a stun gun as a contributing factor in the deaths of three men, a move rebuked as "dangerously close to intimidation" by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

The outcome of the U.S. civil trial comes as the device is under scrutiny in Canada at an inquiry in British Columbia following the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver's airport in October after he was stunned by a Taser.

Taser, which has a reputation for vigorous legal defence of its popular law-enforcement products, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Lisa Kohler, chief medical examiner in Summit County, Ohio, after she named the use of a stun gun as a contributing factor in three deaths in her jurisdiction.

The case went to trial last month and on Friday, Judge Ted Schneiderman ruled in Taser's favour. Judge Schneiderman was explicit: "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 Dennis S. Hyde, Richard Holcomb, or Mark D. McCullaugh."

"The multiple number of experts offered by [Taser International] in the area of sudden and unexpected death while law enforcement attempted to obtain custody, provided overwhelming credible medical and scientific evidence to support their positions."

Judge Schneiderman then ordered Dr. Kohler to change her official autopsy reports and death certificates for each of the three men.

John Manley, chief counsel of civil litigation in the Summit County Prosecutor's Office, said he is disappointed with the judgment. He is considering filing an appeal. He said defending against Taser was a daunting task.

"They are very vigilant, as you would expect a corporation to be who is making a product that makes so much money for you. "They have a record of 68 and 0 -- they've never lost and are quite a force to be reckoned with," he said.

Jeffrey Jentzen, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, an organization that represents the majority of medical examiners in the United States, said the court's ruling and Taser's legal propensity is sending an unwelcome message to medical examiners. "Our membership is very concerned about these cases and the reaction of Taser to these cases," he said last night.

"Our membership is looking into the area and although Taser has developed its own opinion, there are certainly opposing opinions as to their involvement in causing sudden death in individuals.

"Our organization feels that it violates the physician's ability to make a medical decision. Ordering a professional physician to change or alter their records is in violation of their right to practise medicine.

"Taser has sued a number of medical examiners for making informed medical opinions in an attempt, I think, to both protect their product and send a threatening message to medical examiners.

"It is dangerously close to intimidation," he said. "They are attempting to send a message to medical examiners that if they elect to make that determination they may face a civil suit."

Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice-president of communications, said he was surprised by Dr. Jentzen's comments, disagrees with them and defended the company's decision to seek redress appropriately through the courts.

"I would disagree with that premise completely. At the end of the day, the judge's ruling is very, very crystal clear," Mr. Tuttle said.

In a previous statement, Mr. Tuttle said: "Taser International remains adamant in our position of not settling suspect injury or death lawsuits.

"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."

Taser has faced more than 100 product liability suits, according to the company's filings 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.

There have been at least 10 training-injury lawsuits filed against Taser since 2003, according to the company. They include one by an RCMP officer who 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 lawsuit says.

A majority of lawsuits against it have been dismissed and several have brought judgments in Taser's favour.

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