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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Settlement reached in man’s death from taser

January 22, 2009
SUNITA VIJAYAN • The Salinas Californian

Four years following a Del Rey Oaks man’s death after being shot by Taser stun guns, his family has settled a lawsuit against the city of Seaside and its police department.

Attorneys for the city and Michael Robert Rosa’s family confirmed Wednesday that the case was successfully mediated.

Peter M. Williamson, the Rosa family’s lawyer, said after about a year of talks, both parties settled the case Jan. 9 through a mediator in Southern California.

Details of the tentative settlement could not be disclosed, Williamson said, as the City Council has not approved it. He said the council is scheduled to approve the matter at its next meeting later this month.

Williamson, who’s representing the family along with co-counsel John Burton of Pasadena, said they will now focus on the case against the Arizona-based Taser International Inc., makers of the stun gun. He said a jury trial is set for July 17 before Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose.

The wrongful death suit was filed after two Seaside police officers, responding to the Aug. 29, 2004, call, repeatedly fired their Tasers at 38-year-old Rosa in Del Rey Oaks. Police have said Rosa was screaming and yelling and brandishing a 2-by-4 board when officers tased him. After he was hit, police said, Rosa experienced health problems. He was taken to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, where he was pronounced dead.

According to the complaint filed by his family’s attorneys, Rosa did not pose a danger to anyone in his vicinity, though his behavior was erratic — possibly from the effects of methamphetamine. The complaint also alleges that officers bruised Rosa when they “compressed his chest on the ground” after shocking him with the Tasers. Four months after the incident, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office ruled the Taser use was justified.

Williamson said the decision to settle with the city was not an easy one for the family, including Rosa’s mother, Evelyn Rosa, of Seaside.

“Until this thing is resolved, she is not able to put it behind her,” he said. “The family continues to grieve.”

Taser International could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In June, Williamson and Burton, representing a Salinas family, won an unprecedented victory against Taser International. The two represented the family of Robert Heston, 40, who died 30 hours after being shot 25 times from five different stun guns in February 2005 outside his parent’s home on the 100 block of Rodeo Avenue.

In that case, jurors found Taser International 15 percent responsible in Heston’s death and Heston’s own actions, which included having levels of methamphetamine in his system, 85 percent responsible.

The city of Salinas and its officers were cleared from the case mainly because the jurors found the company failed to clearly convey the risks of prolonged deployment.

In October, however, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California threw out the $5.2 million punitive damages awarded in the case. It allowed that the company be responsible for $153,000 in net compensatory damages, stating that the previous amount was excessive. The court also denied a motion for a new trial.

Williamson said they are waiting for a ruling on attorney’s fees, which amounted to $1.6 million.

On Wednesday, some Salinas-area civil rights advocates and law enforcement agencies weighed in on the controversy the stun gun has created since it was first adopted for use in this county.

Since 2002, three men, including Heston and Rosa, have died from being tased by law enforcement officers.

Jaime Coronel, 27, of Watsonville, died in January 2006 after he was stunned by county sheriff’s deputies trying to subdue him on the rooftop of a home in Castroville. Like the two others, toxicology reports revealed a high level of illegal drugs in Coronel’s system.

“Before they started to use that, I felt that it was good — instead of using lethal weapons like guns,” said Crescencio Padilla, a founding member of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ Salinas chapter No. 2055. “The problem now is they use it so much. You can tase a guy to get him off balance, but to tase four or five times? That’s unnecessary.”

Soledad police Chief Richard Cox said the stun gun is just one of the many tools his officers have at their disposal, which includes verbal commands, physical contact and chemical agents. Cox said its usage is based on each officer’s judgment.

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