A California judge has cleared the way for a Taser brain damage lawsuit to proceed to trial, rejecting Taser International’s attempts to dismiss the claim that their stun gun caused a man’s heart to stop. The trial is scheduled to begin in August, and Taser International was also ordered to pay the plaintiff’s expenses in defending against a portion of their motion, which the court indicated was filed in bad faith.
The Taser lawsuit was filed by Steven Butler, a 48-year-old man with a history of mental illness who was Tasered by police three times on a Santa Cruz Metro bus after he refused to leave the vehicle. The complaint alleges that the Taser caused Butler’s heart stopped and he needed to be resuscitated, resulting in severe brain damage that has left him permanently disabled.
Butler’s lawsuit claims that the Taser stun gun, also known as an electric control device (ECD), caused abnormal heart rhythms that resulted in cardiac arrest and subsequent brain damage. He also alleges that the company misrepresented the safety of Taser guns to law enforcement officials.
Taser attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out and asked Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge J. Jeffrey Almquist to rule that Taser’s Model X26 ECD weapons do not cause cardiac arrest. They also asked the judge to dismiss the case on the basis that they have no duty to warn police that the weapons carry a cardiac arrest risk.
Judge Almquist denied the motion for summary judgment, ruling that a jury will decide whether the Taser caused cardiac arrest for the plaintiff, whether Taser is strictly liable for failing to warn about the heart risks, whether Taser intentionally deceived police officers, whether Taser negligently misrepresented the cardiac safety and whether Taser should pay punitive damages based on fraud and malice.
The court also found that a portion of Taser’s motion was “substantially immaterial and irrelevant,” causing a waste of time for the parties and the court. According to a press release issued by Butler’s attorneys, Judge Almquist ordered Taser to pay the plaintiff’s counsel $15,000 in attorney fees to compensate them for their time in responding to that portion of the motion.
Scottsdale-based Taser International has vigorously defended the safety of the weapons in the media and in other cases, obtaining dismissals of many Taser lawsuits that have been filed against them.
Although the Taser has maintained that their weapons are safe and do not pose a serious risk of fatal or permanent injury, the company issued a memo to police agencies throughout the United States last fall warning officers to avoid chests shots. Although Taser has said it issued the warning as a means of legal risk management for law enforcement agencies, critics have characterized the recommendations as an admission that the Taser guns can cause heart problems. Taser International 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.