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Taser Wrongful Death Lawsuit Needs Second Look: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has vacated a ruling that gave a Louisiana police officer immunity in a wrongful death lawsuit involving the use of a Taser stun gun, and has ordered a lower court to take another look at the case.  

On Monday, May 19, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari (PDF) in a case known as Thomas v. Nugent, and sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to be reconsidered.

The lower court had ruled that Scott Nugent, who was fired due to his conduct in the incident leading to the lawsuit, had qualified immunity to a police brutatlity lawsuit that claimed the officer violated the rights of a suspect he shot with a Taser weapon. After receiving the electric shock the suspect later died and the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The case stems from a January 2008 incident in Winnfield, Louisiana. Baron Pikes, wanted for two outstanding warrants, was shocked with a Taser at least eight times within 14 minutes for allegedly resisting police orders. Each time his body was subjected to 50,000 volts of electricity from the Taser weapon. When he was taken to a police station, he allegedly fell to the floor, unconscious, and began foaming at the mouth. He was later declared dead at a local hospital after paramedics were unable to revive him.

Nugent, the police officer who Tasered Pikes, was fired for unnecessary use of force and violence by the Winnfield Police Department. He was charged with manslaughter, but acquitted by a jury. Despite a coroner’s report indicating Pikes died of electrical shocks to the heart, Nugent’s defense team claimed he died from a pre-existing condition.

A civil suit followed, filed by family members, but Nugent’s attorneys claimed the case should be thrown out since Nugent was entitled to qualified immunity because he was serving in the capacity of a police officer. A federal judge disagreed, and let the case move forward. Later, the Fifth Circuit sided with Nugent and threw the case out.

The Supreme Court said the Fifth Circuit erred in its decision and said the court did not give evidence brought by the plaintiffs enough weight. The Fifth Circuit must hear the case again and take the Supreme Court’s opinion, as well as another ruling, Tolan v. Cotton, issued just weeks ago, into consideration.

Taser Stun Gun Deaths

In recent years, serious concerns have emerged about the widespread use and overuse of Taser guns by police forces throughout the United States. The stun guns are designed to incapacitate neuromuscular function by delivering a shock that uses Electro-Muscular Disruption tecnology.

Although Taser International, the manufacturer of the weapons, has maintained that the shock delivered by the Taser is not life threatening, a number of deaths have occurred following use of the stun guns.

In 2008, Amnesty International released a report, calling for police departments throughout the United States to stop using Taser guns or to strictly limit their use to life-threatening situations. The human rights group linked 334 deaths to the use of Taser guns between 2001 and August 2009, noting that 90% of Taser deaths examined involved people who were unarmed and did not appear to present a serious threat to the officers.

In October 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a report that estimated 15% of Taser shootings examined were clearly inappropriate, routinely being used on subjects who were unarmed and posed no physical threat. In addition, more than a third of the cases examined by the NYCLU involved multiple or prolonged shocks, and in 27% of the incidents police officers shot the Taser in the victim’s chest, which some reports suggest could increase the risk of fatal heart injuries.

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