Taser International Strongarms for Removal of Company Product Name from Autopsies

Though the news media has been increasing its coverage of taser incidents that result in personal injury and death, a recent court ruling has once again proven how information regarding the safety of tasers is confusing at best. More likely, the general public's understanding of the issues surrounding police use of tasers is the result of misinformation on usage policies, safety risks and the difference between science and marketing.

Taser International, the manufacturer of the most popular electroshock stun device used by police officers-as well as consumers!-across the country, has made concerted efforts to popularize the term "excited delirium" to be used in conjunction with deaths that result from the use of their tasers.

"Excited delirium" typically refers to a state of heightened bodily excitement that arises from use of controlled substances such as alcohol or illegal drugs when combined with the physical, emotional and psychological excitement that occurs during a high-stress incident such as an arrest. When a shock by a taser stun device is used on someone whose system is filled with unnatural levels of illegal substances as well as this agitation or stress, it can stop the heart or inflict other damage that leads to death.

In their own terms, Taser International has been pushing for medical examiners such as coroners to list the cause of death as "excited delirium." In Ohio, for example, a recent court case resulted in a judge's ruling that the cause of death on three autopsies completed by a medical examiner for Summit County (county seat, Akron) should not include the name "taser."

In practical terms, this decision and decisions like it shift the cause of death from the taser, or the use of the taser, to the victim, whose ingestion of substances can be attributed to his own fault and whose physical state can either be attributed to a medical condition or to no one or nothing in particular.

Taser International supports medical studies that offer claims of the scientific legitimacy of these claims, and in the Ohio case, filed a lawsuit alleging that the medical examiners in Summit County did not have the proper training to evaluate tasers. Clearly, the implication that only medical experts who have studied the effects of tasers extensively are qualified to rule on its contribution to causes of death sounds plausible in a general way, since coroners are trained with a broad medical knowledge that may not be specialized enough to handle new developments in weapons such as tasers.

But as with the pharmaceutical companies who fund the research for their own drugs, the objectivity of medical experts hired by Taser International in assessing the true risk of tasers may be legitimately challenged. After all, the line between good science and good marketing can be very fine. If tasers aren't the cause of death, they should not be improperly included on the death certificate as such. But if the physical damage they cause or their manner of use are even a contributing factor, they should rightfully be included.

Many officials involved in the Ohio case find the idea appalling that a company would sue medical examiners over wording on death certificates that painted them in a bad light. The president of the National Association of Medical Examiners called the notion that medical examiners could be sued for medical opinions "dangerously close to intimidation."

The implications of the verdict could reach farther than just these cases. If medical examiners or doctors believe they could be sued over their professional opinion, they may just choose to overlook contributing factors to a certain death as a safe way to handle a case that may be disputed. Taser International's enticing solution to the matter is choosing the vague term "excited delirium"-though not accepted by the broader medical community yet, the threat of legal action may exert enough subtle pressure to push policy in favor of their ruling.

The question remains, is it medical science or marketing driving these ploys? And the more difficult question for the public is, can we even tell the difference between the two?

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