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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

U.S. court ruling on Tasers worries Canadian doctors

May 7, 2008
CBC News

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.

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