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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Taser lawsuit dismissal is upheld on appeal

9th Circuit Court says Taser International had no reason to advise in 2004 that repeated jolts from its stun guns could cause a condition that raises heart attack risk.

Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

July 11, 2012

A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against the manufacturer of Tasers, ruling the company had no duty to warn that repeated jolts from the stun guns could trigger death.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed unanimously that Arizona-based Taser International had no reason to advise police agencies in 2004 that the stun guns could cause metabolic acidosis, a condition in which lactic acid, produced during physical exertion, accumulates more quickly than the body can expel it. The condition raises the risk of a heart attack.

The parents of Michael Rosa, 38, who died in 2004 after police repeatedly shocked him with electricity from Tasers, sued the manufacturer on the grounds the company should have warned of the risk. The company maintains there is no evidence that Tasers cause acidosis but began warning about it anyway in 2009.

The suit stemmed from an incident in the Monterey County city of Del Rey Oaks. Someone called police to report that a "pretty disturbed" man was walking around and yelling. The first officer on the scene believed the man, Rosa, was "either really high or crazy" and called for backup, the court said. More officers arrived, and officers repeatedly fired Tasers at Rosa before wrangling him into handcuffs.

"At this point, Michael slumped, his lips blue, his breathing erratic," Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain wrote for the court. "He quickly stopped breathing entirely."

Efforts to resuscitate Rosa failed, and he died shortly thereafter. High levels of methamphetamines were discovered in his blood, and his death eventually was linked to acidosis, the court said. But studies previous to the Rosa incident failed to substantiate that Tasers cause acidosis, the court said.

John Maley, an attorney for the company, said it has been sued several times on the grounds the weapon caused the condition. One case led to a jury award of about $200,000 against the company. Maley said he hoped Tuesday's ruling would end the litigation.

"The science even today doesn't establish that dangerous acidosis results from Taser application," Maley said. He said the company decided to issue warnings only to avoid potential liability.

Peter Williamson, one of Rosa's lawyers, disagreed, citing a 2005 study that he said showed Tasers can trigger the deadly condition. The Rosa suit was dismissed only because the death occurred before that study was published, Williamson said.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) should explain use of force, Tasers

A family member’s description of the circumstances that led to a mentally ill man being Tasered last week and the OPP’s reluctance to explain what happened raise questions about how well the situation was handled.

Jake Lee Smith, a 44-year-old City of Kawartha Lakes resident, called 911 after suffering a breakdown and taking an overdose of pills. City of Kawartha Lakes officers went to Smith’s home and when he refused to come out an emergency response team was called in.

According to Smith’s brother, John Garton, Smith panicked when he saw officers in riot gear with semi-automatic rifles and barricaded himself in the house, along with his elderly mother. Some media reports indicated Smith might have had a gun. Garton says the only firearms in the house were a pellet gun and a flare gun used as safety equipment in a boat.

That situation could easily have let to trouble. However, Garton’s version of what happened after he arrived suggests the incident could also have ended quietly. Garton said the officers refused to let him to speak to his brother. Only after a 3-1/2 hour standoff was he allowed to phone in to the home, and convinced Smith to come out and give himself up.

Garton says his brother walked out of the house with his dog and was almost immediately shot twice with a Taser, once in the leg and once in the neck. He described it as a “huge overreaction.”

The OPP refuses to release any details of what the officers reported following the incident. Last week a spokeswoman would say only that the officers were well trained and were protecting the safety of “community members.” On Tuesday she said police will not comment because Smith has been charged with weapons offences and breach of probation.

Police need to be more upfront when they use force during an arrest, particularly in light of the number of deaths following Taser incidents and concerns about the handling of mental health patients. It not clear that Smith was a danger to anyone or that he had threatened the officers in any way.

If not, a full team of specially trained officers should have been able to arrest him peacefully, and should at least have considered letting his brother try to calm him down.

If police saw evidence of a threat serious enough to require Taser use the OPP should say so. The facts will come out if charges against Smith go to court, but the public interest would be better served by not waiting for when, or if, that happens.

A Trial Lawyer’s Guide To Taser Lawsuits