Taser Saga Continues as Chicago Teenager Suffers Near-Fatal Ventricular Fibrillation after Being Shocked with Stun Gun

Tasers continue to be used by many law enforcement agencies under the premise they are safe, non-lethal weapons that save lives.

However, it is getting more and more difficult for Taser supporters to explain away the mounting number of cases in which people have died or suffered serious or life-threatening injuries after being shocked.

This week, The New York Times reported on a case involving a Chicago teenager who was caused to go into ventricular fibrillation as a result of being shocked with a Taser. This is significant because Taser International maintains that its stun guns cannot cause this usually fatal heart disturbance in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood.

Apparently, the only reason the teenager survived was that he received immediate medical attention. Dr. Wayne H. Franklin, a pediatric electrophysiologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago (and a second doctor), claimed that an electrocardiogram confirmed that the boy did, in fact, suffer fibrillation.

Dr. Franklin stated that this case demonstrated the danger posed by Tasers and why portable defibrillators should be available whenever the stun guns may be used.

Taser International immediately countered the medical opinion of the two doctors with an email from a doctor of their own who stated the conclusion was purely speculative and not backed by scientific evidence. The company has adopted the position that its product is safe and has staunchly defended it regardless of the circumstances in every reported death or injury case so far.

Although there had been a surge in Taser use in 2003 and 2004, safety concerns and mounting circumstantial evidence of potentially deadly risks associated with the device have caused sales to plunge in 2005. 

Recently, Canadian Police Research Institute stated that Tasers and other “conducted energy devices” are acceptable because the advantages they provide outweigh the risks they pose.

In reaching this conclusion in its report to Canadian police chiefs, however, the Institute was apparently not overly troubled by the enormous number of deaths that have occurred in cases where a Taser has been used.

The specific finding by the Coroner of Cook County, Illinois, that a Taser was, in fact, the cause of death of a man arrested in Chicago also appears to have been ignored in the report as the type of definitive evidence it was seeking to support the claim that the devices can cause death.

This report came at the same time that police officers in five states were filing lawsuits against Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes.

One officer, a Missouri police chief, alleges that he suffered heart damage and two strokes after he volunteered to be shocked with a Taser in April 2004, while hooked up to a cardiac monitor that was supposed to show the Taser was safe. The officer also claims he suffered hearing and vision loss as well as neurological damage.

Other injuries claimed by the officers involved include spinal fractures, burns, a dislocated shoulder, and soft-tissue damage. A previous lawsuit file in February 2004 alleged a sheriff’s deputy suffered a fractured back in 2002.

The lawsuits challenge Taser International’s central marketing claim that its device is safe and charge the manufacturer of misleading its customers concerning the potential risks posed by the stun guns. Taser is also accused of minimizing and misrepresenting the 2002 fractured back case even after its own doctor found a one-second shock from a Taser caused the injury.

The lawsuits also allege Taser International withheld reports of injuries to at least 12 other police officers and that the company has ignored credible research suggesting the device can be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

As with all previous allegations against it, Taser International has stated that it intends to vigorously defend the claims. The company has denied any of the 144 deaths which have occurred following the use of a Taser was caused by its product.

Clearly, both sides cannot be right in this matter. As we reported on August 7, Taser International has now issued a training bulletin warning that repeated blasts of the Taser can "impair breathing and respiration."

According to a posting on Taser’s website, for subjects in a state known as excited delirium, repeated or prolonged stuns with the Taser can contribute to "significant and potentially fatal health risks."

The three-page bulletin appears to counter instructions in a training manual Taser International issued only last year. It also departs from Taser’s previous dismissals of safety concerns raised by groups such as Amnesty International, which has documented 129 U.S. and Canadian deaths of people stunned by Tasers.

The Houston Police Department (HPD), Taser’s biggest U.S. customer, has formed a review committee of police officials and community leaders, including representatives from the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens, to study the use of Tasers in the city of Houston.
The committee started by reviewing the HPD use-of-force policy, training sessions that officers receive, and the first 200 incidents in which Tasers were used in Houston.

Houston will also be involved in a study of Taser use conducted by a national police-research organization according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.

Obviously, a non-lethal weapon becomes a problem when it starts killing people. Many experts and critics of the Taser stun gun believe that time has long since passed. 

For example, using a number of sources, The Arizona Republic has now compiled a list of 144 cases in the United States and Canada since 1999 where a death followed the use of a Taser stun gun. http://www.azcentral.com/specials/taser/#

The sources used included autopsy reports, computer searches, police reports, media accounts, and Taser International’s own records. To date, the research indicates that medical examiners have cited the Taser to some extent in 18 deaths. In four cases it was a cause of death, in 10 it was a contributing factor, and in four it could not be ruled out as a cause of death. 

This, however, seems to be just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to Taser International’s mounting problems with respect to its approximately 100,000 stun guns now being used by some 7,000 U.S. law-enforcement agencies.

Despite the company’s spirited defense of its product, Taser International’s stock has continued to fall from $33.45 in December 2004 to $9.72 on July 30, a decline of over 70%.

From the very beginning, many experts questioned the safety of the 50,000 volt “non-lethal” weapon.

A lack of adequate testing and independent medical evidence supporting the company’s bold marketing claims have been cited by such diverse critics as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a consulting electrical engineer as reasons for removing the stun guns from the market until more extensive testing is done especially with respect to how the device affects pregnant women, people on drugs, or those with heart conditions.

Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police have suggested that further testing is needed. The organization advocates using the device only to subdue violent suspects; not to use it on handcuffed persons unless they are “overly assaultive;” to use it the least number of times; and to seek medical attention for anyone who has been shocked.

In addition, all types of Taser-related lawsuits abound. Personal injury and death claims have been commenced in a number of states. In March of this year, Mesa, Arizona, settled a claim by a 43-year-old man who fell out of a tree after being shocked twice with a Taser by a city police officer.

The City paid $2.2 million to the man who became a quadriplegic and another $200,000 to the hospital where he was treated.

A class-action lawsuit was commenced only last week in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the city of Dolton, Illinois, on behalf of police departments across the country for being misled about the safety of the Taser and for leaving the police with weapons that are too dangerous to use on the street.

The law firm representing the city of Dolton claims to have already been retained by other police departments in four states. Paul Geller, an attorney from that firm, states that the law suit would be dropped if Taser would agree to take back the stun guns.

The potential for huge personal injury and death claims have left many municipalities rethinking their purchase of Tasers. Some police forces like those in Birmingham and Lucas County (Ohio) have either stopped issuing the weapons or have pulled them of the street altogether. Other cities like Chicago have backed off making additional purchases.

The mayor of Birmingham ordered police to stop using Tasers after the death of an inmate who had been shocked with a Taser several hours before he died.

The mayor of Dolton, which suspended their use, calls his city’s purchase of Tasers “a mistake” because “they need far more testing.” He went on to say that losing the money his city paid for the Tasers was far less than the financial risk posed by even one wrongful-death lawsuit.

On January 6, 2005 Taser officials disclosed that federal authorities had launched an inquiry into claims made by the company with respect to its safety studies. The Securities and Exchange Commission was also probing an end-of-year sale which appeared to inflate sales in order to meet annual projections. 

In May, The Arizona Republic also reported that “Taser International was deeply involved in a Department of Defense study that company officials touted to police departments and investors as ‘independent’ proof of the stun gun’s safety.

This information is surfacing at a time when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general are pursuing inquiries into safety claims that the Scottsdale firm has made.”

On July 17, the Associated Press reported a Texas man died after being shocked between three and six times with a Taser by an off-duty police officer who was acting as a security guard. The man’s wife said she was suing Taser International because her husband “didn’t deserve the death penalty.” It appears the men had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.

The report went on to state: “In the past nine months, at least six people in Texas – including three in Fort Worth have died after authorities shocked them with a Taser gun.”

On July 27, a prisoner being held in a Queens, New York, police station died after being shocked with a Taser.   

Finally, on July 30, several news sources reported that (for the first time) the Cook County (Chicago, Illinois) Medical Examiner had ruled the February 10 death of an agitated 54-year-old man was caused by being shocked excessively with a Taser.

The finding indicated that the 57-second shock was sufficient, in and of itself, to have killed the man. Why such a long shock (ten times the usual amount) was administered has not been explained.

Although the Chicago police force will continue to use the Tasers they already have, an order for additional units was suspended. This weeks report involving the Chicago teenager who suffered ventricular fibrillation following his encounter with a Taser may alter that city’s position regardless of Taser International’s denial of blame. 

Taser has vigorously defended its stun guns in every situation where it has been linked to an injury or death. The company continues to maintain that Tasers are non-lethal and that all of the reports regarding deaths and injuries associated with the device are baseless and can be explained      
away on the basis of other causes.

A recent training bulletin issued by Taser, however, advised police that “repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may cause strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm.” 

Given all of this information, it is difficult to imagine how the Canadian Police Research Institute reached its conclusion that the benefits of the Taser and similar devices outweigh the risks they pose to anyone who is shocked with any of them.

Although it appears that the courts will likely be the forum in which the final verdict on the Taser will be rendered, Taser International may not be able to survive the financial losses caused by dwindling sales, cancelled orders, and the negative press surrounding each case where the embattled stun gun is implicated in a death or serious injury.

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