The family of a 33 year-old doctor who died after being shot with a stun gun by Nevada Highway Patrol officer has filed a lawsuit against Taser International, alleging that the stun gun maker failed to adequately warn about the potentially fatal effects of Tasers.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas by the family of Dr. Ryan Rich, a single father who was a licensed physician and emergency room resident. The family seeks compensatory and punitive damages against Taser International, saying that the company fraudulently promoted Taser guns as nonlethal weapons.
According to the complaint, Dr. Rich suffered a seizure while on his way to work in January 2007. As a result of his inability to control the pick-up truck he was driving, he was involved in several minor accidents that left him dazed, confused and disoriented when his vehicle came to a stop.
The erratic driving was observed by a Nevada Highway Patrol officer, Loren Lazoff, who approached the vehicle and broke the passenger-side window and turned off the engine. The family alleges that while Dr. Rich was initially not combative, violent or posing any threat to the officer, he pulled away while being handcuffed and began running in the direction of traffic lanes. The officer grabbed the back of Dr. Rich’s shirt and discharged his Taser Model X26 ECD from about 3 to four feet into the chest, delivering 50,000 volts of electricity designed to incapacitate humans.
After discharing the initial 5-second cycle to the chest, Officer Lazoff then subjected Dr. Rich to two more 5-second cycles to the chest when Dr. Rich continued to try to remove the probes. After the third cycle, Dr. Rich reportedly began to move his legs and the officer applied two more 5-second cycles to his right thigh in drive stun mode, for a total of five cycles.
The Taser wrongful death lawsuit indicates that Dr. Rich subsequently turned blue and was transported by ambulance to Spring Valley Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The family claims that Rich died of a heart attack as a direct result of the use of the Taser.
The family alleges that Taser International misrepresented the safety of their stun guns, failed to disclose and failed to warn Nevada Highway Patrol and their officers about the risks, including the risk of ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest when a Taser is applied to the chest and that multiple cycles on a single person increase the risk of injury or death. The complaint also alleges that Taser indicated their weapon was an effective, non-lethal control device, when it is actually potentially lethal.
Scottsdale-based Taser International has vigorously defended the safety of the weapons in the media and in other cases, obtaining dismissals of most Taser lawsuits that have been filed against them. This fall, however, the company issued a memo to police agencies throughout the United States warning about the potential Taser heart risks, recommending that officers avoid chest shots.
The Taser gun is designed to incapacitate neuromuscular function by delivering a shock that uses Electro-Muscular Disruption technology. Many law enforcement agencies have deployed the weapons to allow police to incapacitate someone who poses a threat, but there have also been a number of reports of overuse and abuse of the weapons, which could have fatal consequences.
Taser has said it issued the warning not because it believes that the weapons are dangerous, but as a means of legal risk management for law enforcement agencies using their weapons. However, critics have characterized the recommendations as a passive admission that Taser stun guns can cause heart attacks. Taser has disagreed with this interpretation of their recommendations.
The new recommendations, included in a revised training manual, note that the possibility of someone having a cardiac arrest after recently being shot with a stun gun could place Taser and police in the difficult role of having to determine whether the stun gun was a contributing factor. To avoid that, the company recommends that law enforcement agencies train their officers to fire the gun below the chest.
In 2008, Amnesty International released a report on Taser police use, calling for 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 2008. Amnesty noted that 90% of the Taser deaths examined involved people who were unarmed and did not appear to present a serious threat to the officers. A large number of the fatalities involved misuse of the weapons, including multiple Taser shocks or exposing suspects to prolonged shocks.