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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Judge cuts award in taser death

October 28, 2008
By VIRGINIA HENNESSEY, Monterey County Herald

A federal judge has thrown out a jury's award of $5.2 million in punitive damages in the case of a Salinas man who died after police stunned him with Tasers. The ruling leaves intact only $180,000 in compensatory damages for the family of Robert C. Heston, who died Feb. 20, 2005, a day after he was stunned numerous times by Salinas police officers at his father's home.

Judge James Ware agreed with attorneys for Taser International that the jury could award punitive damages only if it found the company knew of the potentially deadly dangers of its product and intentionally sold it without sufficient warnings.

In a complicated 26-question verdict form, the jury found Taser failed to warn the Salinas Police Department of the weapon's risks, contributing to the officers' decision to stun Heston numerous times. However, the jury said though the company should have known Tasers could cause cardiac arrest, it didn't. The verdict cleared Taser of product liability violations, which could have carried punitive damages.

In his ruling Friday, Ware rejected Taser's motion for a new trial, saying there was sufficient evidence to find the company liable for negligence and compensatory damages.

Each side claimed victory with the ruling, and said it is considering an appeal.

"Taser International is obviously very pleased with Judge Ware's ruling with respect to punitive damages," said Doug Klint, general counsel for Taser. "The jury, in this case, clearly exceeded its ability to award punitive damages, which are not permitted under California law on a finding of negligent failure to warn." Klint said the company will "consider all appropriate legal channels" with relation to the negligence verdict.

John Burton, attorney for Heston's parents, Betty Lou and Robert H. Heston, said the judge's ruling was disappointing, but "not unexpected. Everybody's disappointed to have a jury who wanted to assess $5.2 million (in damages) against Taser and have it taken away on technical reasons that have nothing to do with the case," he said. "The important thing is that (Ware) affirmed the liability that Taser did not give warnings that Tasers kill people," he added. "This is one battle in a much bigger war about the safety of these devices."

Burton is scheduled for trial in federal court in June against Taser and two Seaside police officers in the August 2004 death of Michael Rosa. The Pasadena attorney recently filed another lawsuit against the company on behalf of a Santa Cruz County man who sustained brain injuries when he was stunned by Watsonville police.

Like many who have died after being "tased," Heston was in a violent, methamphetamine-induced state when his father summoned police in February 2005. Initial shocks did not phase the 40-year-old man and police continued to fire.

Attorneys in the case agreed that numerous officers shot Taser prongs into Heston, triggering two dozen 5-second cycles, though defense attorneys argued that some of the prongs missed him.

Burton argued Taser International failed to warn Salinas police that prolonged exposure to "tasing" can cause a change in blood chemistry and induce cardiac arrest.

The jury found the weapon can cause acidosis — a reduced level of alkalinity in the blood — but said Taser was unaware of the danger when it sold the "non-lethal" weapons to Salinas police.

The company has since begun warning police agencies of the risk.

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