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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Lawsuit pushes some to question use of tasers

February 7, 2009
By Rebecca Catalanello, St. Petersburg Times

Tasers are getting a second look by some law enforcement agencies that have come to rely on the stun guns as an alternative to more lethal force, according to a federal judge ruling on a California case.

But Hillsborough deputies and Tampa police say they remain convinced of the instrument's merits despite the questions raised in the lawsuit about risks associated with Taser.

"From our perspective, it appears that Taser has reduced injuries and saved lives," said Tampa Police Department spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

Last week, U.S. District Judge James Ware ordered Taser International to pay $1.4 million in attorney fees to the family of a man who died after being shocked several times. The judge noted that the case is causing officers around the globe to rethink how they use the weapon.

Robert C. Heston died in June 2005 after being jolted repeatedly by Salinas, Calif., police during an arrest. Last year, a jury in the case handed Taser its first product liability lawsuit defeat, ruling that the company did not do enough to warn officers of the risks associated with the gun.

"The notoriety of Plaintiff's first-of-its kind verdict, in some circumstances, has prompted a number of TASER customers and prospective customers to consider the risk of repeated and prolonged Taser electric charges on individuals in an excited or delirious state," Ware wrote in the order, signed Jan. 30.

In Hillsborough County, where a man died last year after being shocked by a Taser three times, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the California case so far has had no effect on how deputies are trained to use Tasers.

Roney Wilson, 46, died Sept. 11, after deputies shocked him three times. Wilson had barricaded himself in his mother's truck in Plant City and smashed out the windshield when his family called 911 for help.

A medical examiner on Wednesday said Wilson's cause of death was "agitated delirium," a controversial diagnosis frequently associated with Taser-involved deaths. But Dr. Leszek Chrostowski couldn't say what role the Taser played.

In the California case, a jury concluded that repeated electrical shocks from a Taser caused so much acid to build up in Heston's body it sparked cardiac arrest.

Taser International should have known about the danger, the jury said, and warned officers.

Asked for response to Ware's decision, company spokesman Steve Tuttle sent this e-mail: "Our insurance company has indicated that it will appeal the latest ruling concerning the attorney's fees."

The judge noted in his order that Taser still hasn't adopted a warning that addresses the risks of metabolic acidosis.

Peter Williamson, the attorney for Heston's family, said the case makes it clear law enforcement should not rely solely on the information about Tasers provided by its publicly traded Arizona manufacturer.

"You have to take what Taser says with a grain of salt because they filter everything through a very specific lens," Williamson said.

Though the jury's Heston verdict stands, a judge threw out its $5.2 million award in punitive damages in October. The company issued a press release then saying it would keep pursuing other legal channels in the Heston verdict, including an appeal.

In his most recent order, Judge Ware noted that police in Australia cited the Heston case in its move to develop policies on how to handle people showing characteristics associated with "excited delirium."

And Taser is being reconsidered in other places.

Some police agencies in Canada pulled the weapon off the street and ordered testing after a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation aired in September showing some Taser models delivered more volts than the manufacturer said was possible.

In Las Vegas, the Police Department recently ended its practice of shocking officers during Taser training after getting complaints of injuries. Three employees filed lawsuits, and the agency's former sheriff stated in a court document that he believes Taser downplayed the risk of the guns in order to sell them to police.

Tampa Police Department attorneys are aware of the California case, but like Hillsborough, they expect no changes in how officers use the gun, spokeswoman Davis said. The agency's use of the Taser since 2005 has lowered the number of police shootings from 18 between 2002 and 2004 to 13 since 2006, she said.

Both Hillsborough and Tampa have written policies that bar officers from "repeatedly drive stunning" subjects in most cases. That means they shouldn't press the gun directly against a person's skin repeatedly.

In a preliminary review of the Wilson death, sheriff's administrators found no fault with the deputies' actions after they shocked him three times.

Chrostowski, the medical examiner, said Wednesday that Wilson was in a state of agitated delirium before deputies arrived. He said Wilson's stress at being detained while in that physical state contributed to his death.

Williamson, the Heston family attorney, said the key is how the Taser is used on a person in that state. One shock of the Taser should be enough, he said.

"We don't have a problem with the Taser being used," Williamson said, "but not multiple applications."

Wilson's family has retained attorney Mary Jo Meives of Hollywood. She declined comment, pending her review of the medical examiner's report.

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