Taser International Loses First Product Liability Lawsuit as Jury Finds Taser Responsible for Death

No matter how much police and other law enforcement agents try to tout the taser electroshock weapon's effectiveness as a "non-lethal" weapon used as an alternative to firearms, the simple fact is that tasers are lethal and cause serious personal injury. What makes a skeptic question the research backing up law enforcement claims is that nearly all of it is funded and provided by Taser International, the manufacturer of the taser stun gun.

Of course, with an eye on their own bottom line, it's easy to weight studies or cherry-pick results to make their personal injury claims sound plausible. Logic, on the other hand, doesn't bear out their optimism. If you're dealing with an agitated but normally functioning human being who is repeatedly shocked with electrical jolts of up to 50,000 volts and that human dies, it's foolish to ignore the simplest explanation for the cause of death: the introduction of 50,000 volts into the body.

And, yet, that is what both Taser International and cities defending against wrongful death lawsuits have been doing for years now: grasping at any explanation for a victim's death other than the obvious effect of the taser. The most popular recently has been the new term "excited delirium," which is not widely recognized in the medical field but is sometimes used to describe an individual whose ingestion of illegal substances in large amounts coupled with adrenaline makes their body particularly weak and susceptible to death during a taser shock. However, Taser can't surely expect us to believe that all victims of a taser death have been hopped up on speed, can they? Or that even so, that their product has nothing to do with the death?

But a square blow has been landed on Taser's seemingly impenetrable armor. After hundreds of wrongful death lawsuits have either been thrown out or settled quietly, a jury in San Jose, California finally ruled against Taser International, making a lawsuit filed by the family of 40-year-old Robert Heston the first product liability case decided against the company.

Robert Heston died on February 20, 2005, when police officers from Salinas responded to a call by Heston's father indicating that Heston was behaving in a strange manner and could possibly be on drugs. The police used tasers on Heston repeatedly to subdue him until his body stopped moving.

However, Heston hadn't simply complied-his heart had stopped. The Hestons sued both Taser International for failure to adequately warn law officers of the danger their product posed, as well as the Salinas police officers for excessive force. However, the police officers were exonerated by the jury in favor of placing the blame for the death at the feet of Taser.

The jury decided that the officers could not have known that multiple exposures to the taser's electricity because they were informed otherwise in documentation provided by the company as well as its training courses.

Instead, Taser International was socked with $1 million in compensatory damages and $5.2 million in punitive damages. The jury decided that Heston was mostly to blame for his death, due to his resistance and his drug use; they placed 85% of the blame, in fact, on the victim. However, their message to Taser was loud and clear: don't think that just because the death was partially the victim's fault, that the taser gun played no part in the matter.

The compensatory damages will be reduced by the percentage at which Hest on was at fault, meaning from $1 million to $150,000. However, punitive damages are not reducible, and therefore Taser will be on the hook for the whole amount, barring its likely appeal.

But whatever the case, Taser is in major trouble. With precedent now showing juries and judges the way, there could be a better opportunity for victims of taser brutality to find justice for their losses. At least, now Taser is on the defensive: the attorney representing the Hestons put it best when he said, "I think Taser's going to have to rethink its litigation strategy and its warning policies."

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