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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Taser is paying millions in secret 'suspect injury or death' settlements - when does 'less lethal' actually mean deadly?

December 13, 2013 - Matt Stroud, The Verge

On the day before Thanksgiving this year, international stun gun and cop-cam company Taser International, Inc. announced it had given up its fight in two major legal battles over "suspect injury or death." In a 275-word statement submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the company's chief financial officer said it would pay a total of $2.3 million in settlements to plaintiffs who had sued the company in product liability cases.

This was rare. Taser prides itself in fighting to the bitter end in any case alleging that its products do anything but save lives. Yet there it was in a financial disclosure — Taser backing down.

Taser brushed it off as a remnant of simpler times. According to the vaguely worded statement, enhanced "risk management procedures" and "revisions to product warnings" in 2009 corrected a legal vulnerability. The $2.3 million payouts would address the last lawsuits tied to that vulnerability; they would amount to housekeeping — cleaning up lingering messes that had remained on the company’s books since before 2009.


But what were these "risk management procedures"? What were these "revisions to product warnings"? What was the vulnerability? And what were these cases? Taser’s press liaison told The Verge that its SEC declaration "speaks for itself" — a clear indication that the company has no plans to say anything further about settlements unless it’s forced to.

But a little research helped to pin down procedural changes Taser made in September, 2009. And a public records search helped to narrow the possibilities down to four representative cases that may have been settled. Those cases have a few major factors in common: they involve a Taser shot at someone’s chest; they involve someone going into cardiac arrest; and they involve an accidental death.

For years, Taser has battled in court to show that its electronic control devices — its ECDs such as the X2 and the X26 — cannot kill. But if its recent settlements are any indication, the company may either be slowly backing away from that premise, or at least attempting to draw a line in time after which the company feels it's no longer liable for someone’s death.


As bars were closing at about 2AM on April 19, 2008, 24-year-old Kevin Piskura was at a music venue about a block away from the Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio. As the bar closed its doors and patrons exited, a fight broke out. Oxford Police were called. According to a civil complaint filed in 2010 by Piskura’s parents, an officer ordered Piskura to "step back or back away" from the fight. It’s not clear whether he did or not, but the officer soon pulled out a Taser ECD and shot Piskura in the chest. Piskura went into cardiac arrest; his heart stopped beating. He was taken to a nearby emergency room and soon life-flighted to a Cincinnati hospital where he died five days later. This past March, Piskura’s parents settled with the City of Oxford and the Oxford Police Department for $750,000. In October, Piskura’s parents suggested they were considering a settlement with Taser.

The Piskuras did not return calls from The Verge, and an attorney representing their case declined to comment. But Kevin Piskura’s death fits a pattern consistent to ongoing product liability cases involving Taser-related incidents in which someone was killed prior to September, 2009. The $2.3 million payouts likely stem from similar cases; these incidents occurred before Taser made its switch from "non-lethal" to "less lethal."

Regarding that: letters to medical journals and plenty of anecdotal evidence have suggested at least since 2005 that even healthy people could suffer cardiac arrest if shot near the heart with Taser’s "non-lethal" ECDs. By September, 2009, Taser changed its product warnings accordingly. Today, Taser’s ECDs are branded as "less lethal" instead of "non lethal," and its training materials warn that "exposure in the chest area near the heart … could lead to cardiac arrest."

Another ongoing cardiac arrest case against Taser involves Ryan Rich. A 33-year-old physician in Las Vegas, Rich went into cardiac arrest and died in January, 2008 after he was shot five times with an ECD, including once in the chest. That case is headed to trial in January.

A third case comes out of the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, and will head to trial in May, 2014. It involves the 2009 death of 16-year-old, 5-feet-2-inch Robert Mitchell, who died in an abandoned house after being shot in the chest by a Warren police officer with a Taser ECD.


Darryl Turner’s case is a fourth possibility. Turner was 17 years old in March 2008 when he got into an argument with his boss at the North Carolina Food Lion grocery where he worked as a cashier. According to a complaint later filed by Turner’s parents, the argument escalated to shouting and Turner’s boss eventually called 911. A police officer from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department arrived and asked Turner to "calm down." When the teenager refused, the officer pointed his Taser ECD at Turner’s chest. Turner began to step toward the officer, so the officer "held down the Taser’s trigger, causing the device to continue emitting an electrical current, until Turner eventually collapsed 37 seconds after the device initially was activated." Paramedics soon arrived to find Turner handcuffed and unconscious. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

In an uncommon outcome, Turner’s family was awarded a massive payout in 2011. Taser appealed. In November of this year, an appeals court issued its opinion that Taser should remain liable for Turner’s death, but that the jury’s award needed to be reconsidered. "We have no doubt that Turner had significant value to his parents," the appeals court’s decision read. But the court couldn’t agree with a "reasonable level of certainty" that the boy’s life was worth $6.15 million. The parties are scheduled to head back to court in 2014 to haggle over that figure. Unless, that is, Taser has decided to cut its losses and settle out of court.

Taser International is very good about keeping records. In addition to its Axon Flex on-body police camera that allows officers to record interactions with suspects, the company also collects data every time a Taser ECD is fired. But it’s up to police departments — and up to Taser International — to decide how much of that information is revealed publicly.

The company takes a similar approach in the courtroom.

Taser typically insists on keeping its legal settlements — such as those referenced in its recent $2.3 million payout — secret. Rarely are the terms made public. But it happens occasionally. One Northern California case involved a drunk man off his psychiatric meds who was shot with a Taser ECD after refusing to get off a bus. He went into cardiac arrest. An emergency crew was able to resuscitate him on scene, but after going 18 minutes without a breath, the man suffered a crippling brain injury. He would require a caregiver from that point forward.

After a long legal battle, Taser agreed to settle that case. As per usual, it demanded that the settlement agreement be kept secret. The defendants in the case agreed. But eventually it was revealed that the company had settled for $2.85 million. The settlement figure was only made public after a probate court judge made the unusual decision to disclose the dollar amount in open court.


A report from the San Jose Mercury News later explained the judge’s reasoning. There was, the judge said, "therapeutic value" in making the information public.

Whether or not a judge makes similar decisions about Taser’s recent settlements, it’s clear that the company has decided to settle cardiac arrest cases as quietly as possible because it has maintained for years that its weapons are effective, non-deadly alternatives to firearms. If too much attention focuses on Taser-related deaths, there’s a risk that police departments might choose to sidestep the controversy altogether and opt against Taser's products.

There’s a lot at stake on both sides. For Taser, its NASDAQ-traded stock value is on the line. And for those engaged in open legal battles over Taser-related deaths involving cardiac arrest and factors such as "excited delirium" ("a euphemism for ‘death by Taser’") — as well as those who may literally find themselves facing down a Taser ECD in the future — the value of an open settlement may amount to more than mere therapy. It could amount to life or death.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Canadian #35 Dies

A man has died and several officers were injured after police were called to a rooming house in Montreal where they deployed a Taser.

Quebec provincial police said 41-year-old Donald Ménard died following an altercation with police on Monday evening (November 11, 2013).  Police received a call about 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday night about a woman suffering from a possible drug overdose at a rooming house near the corner of St-André and Ontario streets. Police said that at the scene Ménard appeared to be intoxicated and that he attacked an officer, who ended up losing a tooth. "They tried to find the woman, and there was a lot of people, aggressive people, inside the place and also intoxicated people," said Const. Simon Delorme.  Ménard disappeared from the Pinel Institute, a Montreal psychiatric hospital, on Nov. 10 and provincial police had been searching for him since then.

Several officers were injured while trying to restrain the man. "One man, strongly intoxicated, started to be very aggressive and combative with the police officer. He hit a police officer in the face."  According to Radio-Canada, CBC's French service, the officers resorted to using a Taser after they tried to use batons and pepper spray to subdue the man.

Radio-Canada reported that the man refused to be transported to hospital, but eventually lost consciousness.

Ménard was taken to hospital in critical condition and later pronounced dead.

The woman who police were originally called to help was treated in hospital and is expected to recover, and four officers were treated in the hospital for minor injuries.

Quebec provincial police are investigating.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Canadian #34 Dies

October 31, 2013
Edmonton, The Canadian Press
An investigative unit says a 39-year-old man who was zapped by Edmonton police with an electronic stun gun has died in hospital.
The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, known as ASIRT, says an autopsy will be done on the man who died Wednesday night.
He was hospitalized in serious condition last week after an encounter with police.There have been few details about what happened.
ASIRT hasn’t said how many times the man was hit with a Taser, but media reports have quoted witnesses who said it was three times.
ASIRT reports to the Alberta Justice Department and investigates events involving serious injury or death that may have resulted from the actions of a police officer.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Man dies a day after RCMP use Taser on him in Leduc, Alberta

August 4, 2013
A man has died one day after RCMP used a Taser on him in Leduc, Alta., a spokesperson for Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) says.
The 27-year-old man was taken into custody Friday night following an altercation with three RCMP officers at a gas station on the corner of 50th Street and 50th Avenue.
ASIRT Executive Director Clifton Purvis said officers used a conducted energy weapon, or Taser, to subdue the man before handcuffing him.
The man went into medical distress and lost consciousness, police said. He was taken to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton where he was originally reported to be in critical condition, according to an ASIRT spokesperson.
He died in hospital Sunday morning, said Purvis.
An ASIRT team has now been assigned to investigate the incident and will be relying on witness statements as well as security and cellphone video footage to aid in their assessment.
"At this point, we don’t know whether or not [the Taser] contributed to the medical condition and subsequent death of this individual," said Purvis. "There will be an autopsy conducted on that male later this week."
"Once the cause of death is determined, it will allow us to focus the investigation on the manner of death," he added.
RCMP said Saturday the man had been linked to a series of assaults, automobile thefts, driving complaints and hit and runs. They are now conducting their own investigation into the incident, said Purvis.
This is the second death linked to provincial RCMP officers in Alberta this weekend.
A man was fatally shot by another RCMP officer near Pigeon Lake on Saturday evening.
ASIRT, an independent body that investigates incidents involving serious injury or death that may relate to the actions of a police officer, is looking into both incidents.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Parents tell Taser inquest they hope son's death will bring change

July 19, 2013
Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press

MIDHURST, Ont. -- There's no doubt Aron Firman's death moments after he was Tasered by police was tragic -- all parties at the inquest examining the case of the mentally ill Ontario man agreed on that point.

But just how much of a role the electric stun gun played in the 27-year-old's death was the subject of much contention Friday before a jury retired to deliberate what's been described by Ontario's top pathologist as an "index case."

"There's clearly controversy around this case...specifically around the cause and manner of Mr. Firman's death," presiding coroner William Lucas said in his charge to the jury.

"The circumstances of the death of Mr. Firman have raised some questions."

Firman, a man with schizophrenia, died in June 2010 after an encounter with Ontario Provincial Police in Collingwood, Ont. Ontario's police watchdog cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, but said the Taser's deployment caused Firman's death.

Lucas suggested there were two possible ways to characterize Firman's cause of death -- "accidental," as Firman's family has suggested, or "undetermined," as Taser International has argued.

As he urged the jury to weigh all the evidence and testimony that has come before them, he warned the five-member panel not to resort to an "undetermined" cause of death as a matter of convenience.

"Finding a manner of death of "undetermined" should not be used simply as a means to avoid having to reach a conclusion which may be unpopular," he said.

The inquest, which has been sitting intermittently since April, has heard vastly different testimony from experts. Some have suggested that the use of a Taser on Firman was a key factor in his death. Others argued the stun gun had little to do with the fatality.

Firman's parents, who have maintained that their son would be alive if it hadn't been for the Taser, said they wanted his death to be a catalyst for change.

"I hope with all my heart that Aron's death will not be for nothing," father Marcus Firman said as he choked back tears. "My hope would be to come away from the inquest with a vision on how to go forward with dealing with mental illness."

Aron Firman was described by his father as a gentle, artistic and inquisitive man who was keenly aware of his "terrible illness." Both parents said their son's loss had left an aching void in their lives.

The lawyer for the Firman family suggested the jury deem Firman's death an accidental one in which the Taser was an important factor.

His argument was based largely on previous testimony from Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario's chief pathologist, who conducted Firman's autopsy and found the Taser was the "most immediate factor" in his death.

"If you find that the Taser was related in that death...the world will not end," lawyer Sunil Mathai told the jury.

"If you make that finding, you're not standing alone on that. You're standing with the chief pathologist of Ontario -- a man recognized worldwide as a leader in pathology."

Mathai also assured the jury that Firman's family was not seeking an eradication of Tasers.
"The family takes the position that Tasers have proper place in policing," he said. "This is not a Spanish Inquisition into Tasers. We are not seeking to remove them."

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Taser International has suggested Firman could have died from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by "excited delirium" -- a condition sometimes cited as a cause of death in people using cocaine or those with severe mental illness.

David Neave urged the jury to label the cause of Firman's death as "undetermined."

"The preponderance of the evidence that is now before the jury is that the Taser played no role in his death," Neave told The Canadian Press outside the inquest.

"I don't think it's an index case...This case is not about Taser discharge. This case is quite frankly about the state of excited delirium that Mr. Firman was in and the medical conditions or medical changes that that syndrome causes."

The jury is now considering how it can characterize Firman's death and may put forward recommendations on what can be done to prevent similar deaths in the future. It is expected to return with a verdict next week.

The use of Tasers by police has come under increased scrutiny over the years, particularly in the high-profile death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was Tasered several times during an altercation with RCMP officers at Vancouver's airport in 2007.

A public inquiry into Dziekanski's death has said multiple deployments of the Taser along with a physical altercation contributed to the circumstances that lead to Dziekanski's heart attack. The BC Coroners Service agreed with the conclusions of the inquiry.

Dziekanski's death led to a number of recommendations, which were implemented by all police officers working in British Columbia, including the RCMP. They included getting better training on Tasers, using the weapons only if there's a danger a suspect will cause bodily harm, and training officers in crisis management.

Firman's family made similar suggestions in 21 recommendations submitted to the jury on Friday.

They included asking the jury to recommend that Ontario Provincial Police provide annual, mandatory crisis intervention and resolution training, which would have input from mental health professionals and those with mental-health issues, and that the province appoint a co-ordinator for implementation of that training.

The family also wants the jury to recommend the OPP revise its use-of-force policy for conducted energy weapons so an officer is prohibited from using one unless satisfied that de-escalation or crisis intervention techniques haven't worked and no option involving less force will work to eliminate the risk of someone getting hurt.

Friday, June 07, 2013

A comment received today from "Gilbert"

I can’t believe the number of Canadian cops and even some coroners and judges who are still accepting Excited Delirium as a ‘cause-of-death’. Neither the CMA or AMA recognize it. Then the Braidwood Inquiry looking into the death of Robert Dziekanski blew the ED idea out of the water, as a concocted concept to help police explain away ‘unintended consequences’ during and after Taser incidents. Have you ever heard of ED mentioned in anything other than Taser-related fatalities?

Mother Jones published an eye-opening piece in 2009, right around the time when Taser International quietly announced in a training bulletin that officers should avoid chest shots because of proximity to the heart. That flies in the face of the claims made by the company a decade earlier, when its executives crowed about Tasers being safe to use on any assailant. Mother Jones reported the manufacturer’s questionable methods of promoting ED to anyone who would listen—mainly police and lawyers- through a second-party organization based in Las Vegas, Nevada! The article is a bit dated now, in that Taser has lost at least one other major product liability case- that being the late 17-year old Daryl Turner, who was stunned twice in the chest by a cop in North Carolina. The Turner family won a $10-million dollar jury judgement, although it was halfed on appeal. Taser was rapped for 'failure to warn' about cardiac risks; these are risks TI executives were told about in 2006 by one of their own scientists after one of their own healthy volunteers suffered a heart attack during a controlled experiment. Luckily a defib was nearby and the volunteer survived. They company kept selling product, only issuing the chest-avoidance warning in late 2009. That case set the legal precedent that Tasers can kill. Commissioner Braidwood concluded that too. And now, if you read the fine print you'll see TI itself is admitting its products can cause cardiac and metabolic changes that can lead to death.

Taser 'key factor' in Ontario man's death, says Ontario's top pathologist

Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 6, 2013 6:35AM EDT 
Last Updated Thursday, June 6, 2013 6:43PM EDT

MIDHURST, Ont. -- The death of a mentally ill man after he was Tasered by police three years ago was described as an "index case" by Ontario's top pathologist Thursday, as he identified the electric stun gun as a key factor in the fatality.

Dr. Michael Pollanen spent hours testifying at the inquest into the death of Aron Firman, a 27-year-old schizophrenic who died in June 2010 after an encounter with Ontario Provincial Police.

Pollanen called the incident "an accident" -- echoing a finding by Ontario's police watchdog that cleared the officers dealing with Firman of any wrongdoing.

"I have never seen a case where I was confident that you could link a Taser as factor in death, until this case," he told the five-member jury at the inquest.

"This is a first of its kind in Ontario."

Pollanen acknowledged there would be some who disagreed with his finding, particularly as the use of Tasers and their effects is still a growing field of study.

"There is unlikely to be entire uniform agreement on this case," he said. "But I would say it's too parsimonious to say the Taser was uninvolved in death."

Pollanen was careful to note, however, that while the Tasering of Firman was the "most immediate factor" in his death, it was not the only factor.

He described Firman's cause of death as "cardiac arrhythmia precipitated by electronic control device deployment in an agitated schizophrenic man."
But he also said Firman had a "moderately" enlarged heart -- though he did not have a specific heart disease -- and carried a gene which may possibly have made his heart more vulnerable to injury.

"The fatal outcome in this case likely presents the conjunction of many factors coming together at the same time," he said.
Pollanen made it clear he believed the use of Tasers by authorities had its benefits, and the electric stun gun's role in a fatality was rare, but nonetheless, he said, in some cases the use of a Taser does lead to death.

One possibility the chief forensic pathologist largely dismissed was a suggestion Firman could have died from a syndrome known as "excited delirium," which is sometimes cited as a cause of death in people using cocaine or those with severe mental illness.

A lawyer representing Taser International, which has standing at the inquest, took Pollanen to task on that point, arguing that Firman could very well have died due to excited delirium.

"I'm saying many factors of excited delirium are here," argued David Neave, who also said Pollanen had shown no objective published data which demonstrated that a Taser discharge can cause death.

For his part, Pollanen repeatedly told the inquest it was hard to determine the dividing line between severe agitation and excited delirium.

On that point, the lawyer for the Firman family argued that Firman had been severely agitated in the past but died after he was Tasered.

"It is the family's position in this inquest that if the Taser was not deployed and used on him, he would not have died," Sunil Mathai said outside the inquest.

Mathai added that the family agreed with Pollanen's noting of other factors which could have contributed to Firman's death, saying those elements contributed to "the susceptibility of his heart being captured by the Taser."

Firman's parents were present at Thursday's proceedings, as they have been throughout the inquest.

"It's been a very hard process for us to go through," Firman's father, Marcus Firman, told The Canadian Press.

"This is three years after the event and it brings everything back fresh."

The family is hoping that the inquest will lead to better guidelines around the use of Tasers by authorities and improved response techniques when police have to deal with agitated mentally ill people like their son.

The inquest began in April and was expected to hear from about 20 witnesses.

Aron Firman was a resident at a group home in Collingwood, Ont., at the time of his death.

A December 2010 report from Ontario's Special Investigations Unit said that on June 24 of that year two OPP officers responded to an assault complaint about Firman and found him sitting in a chair outdoors.

Both officers attempted to speak to "an agitated" Firman, according to the report. When they moved to apprehend him Firman got out of his chair and "moved aggressively" towards an officer, it said.

The second officer tried to intervene but was unable to do so as Firman hit her in the face with his elbow, said the report. Firman then moved toward the first officer who responded by discharging his Taser gun at him.

Firman was able to take a few additional steps before falling to the ground and losing consciousness, the report said. He was taken to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead.

In commenting on the case, the SIU director singled out the use of the Taser on Firman.

"In this incident, the Taser's deployment in my view caused Mr. Firman's death," Ian Scott said in his report.

While noting the responding officers had the authority to arrest Firman for assault and had not done anything wrong, Scott pointed out that the Taser is characterized "as a less lethal or intermediate weapon."

"In these circumstances, and in light of Mr. Firman's demonstrated degree of aggression, I am of the opinion that the Taser's deployment was not excessive, notwithstanding the fact that it caused Mr. Firman's demise."

The use of Tasers by police has come under increased scrutiny over the years, particularly in the high-profile death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was Tasered several times during an altercation with RCMP officers at Vancouver's airport in 2007.

A public inquiry in Dziekanski's death has said multiple deployments of the Taser along with a physical altercation contributed to the circumstances that lead to Dziekanski's heart attack. The BC Coroners Service agreed with the conclusions of the inquiry.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Alien Boy - The Life and Death of James Chasse

A documentary about the September 17, 2006 death of James Chasse.

From the website:  On Sept. 17, 2006 James Chasse was stopped by three law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon in broad daylight.  A dozen eyewitnesses watched in horror as the officers tackled, beat, kicked, and tasered James until he lay motionless on the pavement with 16 broken ribs and a punctured lung. He died in the custody of Portland police about two hours later.