Judge rules for Taser in cause-of-death decisions

The Arizona Republic | May 2, 2008
By Robert Anglen

Taser International has fired a warning shot at medical examiners across the country.

The Scottsdale-based stun gun manufacturer increasingly is targeting state and county medical examiners with lawsuits and lobbying efforts to reverse and prevent medical rulings that Tasers contributed to someone's death.

That effort on Friday helped lead an Ohio judge's order to remove Taser's name from three Summit County Medical Examiner autopsies that had ruled the stun gun contributed to three men's deaths.

"We will hold people accountable and responsible for untrue statements," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said earlier this week. "If that includes medical examiners, it includes medical examiners."Many medical examiners, who are charged with determining the official causes of death, view the Scottsdale-based company's efforts as disturbing, the spokesman for the National Association of Medical Examiners says.

"It is dangerously close to intimidation," says Jeff Jentzen, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "At this point, we adamantly reject the fact that people can be sued for medical opinions that they make."

In the Ohio case, the judge said the county offered no medical, scientific or electrical evidence to justify finding the stun gun was a factor in the deaths of two men in 2005 and another in 2006. Taser and the City of Akron sued the medical examiner, saying examiners in the case lacked the proper training to evaluate Tasers.

Chief Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler said that her examiners rightly concluded Taser contributed to the deaths and said county lawyers will appeal the judge's ruling.

"I would not be going forward with this if I did not believe in the rulings," she said.

The judge's order could have an immediate impact on criminal cases against five Summit County sheriff's deputies who were charged in the 2006 "homicide" of a jail inmate. Instead of homicide, the judge ordered the cause of death changed to "undetermined."

Laying a foundation

Before Friday's verdict, legal experts said Taser's victory could lay the foundation for other cases against dozens of medical examiners who have ruled that shocks from the 50,000-volt stun gun can be fatal.

Medical examiners say they're concerned that Taser's aggressive moves could have a chilling effect on doctors, preventing them from blaming Tasers for deaths even when evidence exists.

Taser still faces lawsuits from family members of victims who claim the stun gun is deadly and the company has not done proper medical research. They allege police officers are using the weapon as a compliance tool against people who do not pose significant threats.

But the company has won an impressive number of legal victories and said it has only paid out settlements in a few cases involving police officer injuries. To date, the company says more than 60 cases have been dismissed.

Taser stun guns are a fixture among police. It is used by more than 12,000 police agencies across the country, and by every major law enforcement agency in the Valley. Many police agencies credit the gun with preventing deaths and injuries to officers and suspects.

Taser maintains they are safe

Taser maintains that its guns have not caused a death or serious injury. Officials say company-funded and independent medical studies show the stun guns are safe.

More than two dozen medical examiners across the country have found the stun gun at least partly responsible in the deaths of suspects.

Since 1999, more than 300 people have died in North America following police Taser shocks. The vast majority of those deaths have not been linked to the stun gun. But medical examiners have cited the gun directly or could not rule it out as a factor in nearly 10 percent of the cases, an The Arizona Republic investigation found.

Medical examiners, who typically work for the county or state, are supposed to provide independent scientific analysis about the cause of someone's death. Their rulings are recognized by courts and the police as the official cause of death.

Taser officials have repeatedly said that medical examiners who rule against the stun gun are not qualified to judge whether a Taser was a factor in someone's death. In court disputes, it often presents opposing testimony from company representatives, doctors and medical examiners paid by the firm.

"The qualifications of a medical examiner depend on their professional and educational background as well as their level of understanding of Taser technology and the underlying effects of electricity upon the human body," Tuttle said.

The company's tactics worry Jentzen, a former medical examiner and current director of autopsy and forensics at the University of Michigan.

"I am concerned any time there is a person who is an advocate who may have a conflict of interest," he says.

Jentzen says there are few cases where companies have taken the position that coroners can't be trusted to evaluate their product's involvement in someone's death, and none so aggressively as Taser.

Taser targets rulings

In addition to Ohio, Taser sued a coroner in Indiana who had ruled that Taser caused the death of a man in 2004.

Several coroners have also reported being challenged by Taser, says Jentzen. Among them was a Cook County, Ill., medical examiner who ruled Taser shocks contributed to the death of a 54-year-old man in 2005. Taser dismissed the autopsy report as not credible and said the medical examiner was unqualified. The company demanded a judicial review.

Taser also has asked coroners to reverse opinions. An Anderson, S.C., deputy coroner said Taser representatives showed up in his office on the same day that he ruled Taser shocks contributed to a man's death in 2004.

Charlie Boseman said Taser wanted him to remove any reference to the stun gun from his report. He refused.

Coroners told to bone up

Taser officials have provided coroners reams of medical research in support of the stun gun following a death.

Tuttle says it is up to medical examiners to do the proper research, read the papers and perform tests before making a ruling on a death involving a Taser.The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2007 that a county medical examiner based half of his testimony at a coroner's inquest on information supplied by Taser. The medical examiner did not disclose to a jury that he met with Taser officials and reviewed the company's literature before testifying that the stun gun's role in a death was debatable.

In Summit County, Kohler said she has received volumes of medical studies and literature from Taser, all suggesting that the rulings in her cases are wrong.

In Maricopa County, at least 10 people have died following police Taser strikes since 2002. In a 2004 case, the medical examiner's office ruled that Taser shocks contributed to a Mesa man's death. Autopsy reports were unavailable for review this week by The Republic.

Neither Chief Medical Examiner Mark Fischione nor Taser would discuss what, if any, involvement the company had with medical examiners performing autopsies in the cases.

Fischione did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Taser for years touted autopsy reports as proof of the stun gun's safety. Company officials told police departments and shareholders that no medical examiner had cited the stun gun in an autopsy report. But The Republic's investigation found that 27 medical examiners concluded that the gun caused, contributed to or could not be ruled out in deaths.

'Excited delirium' blamed in Taser-related deaths

Taser advocates an alternative cause-of-death scenario called excited delirium. The condition, which is not recognized as a diagnosis in official medical manuals, is used to describe deaths of suspects who become so agitated by drugs, psychosis or poor health that their bodies shut down during struggles with police.

Excited delirium has been cited in police custody-death cases for decades. It is now being blamed more and more by medical examiners for deaths that occur following a police Taser strike, including at least one in Maricopa County in recent years.

Taser has funded excited delirium studies and has been involved in promoting its research. The company maintains that excited delirium is a valid syndrome, and some doctors say it will gain acceptance as more research is conducted.

Mark Schlosberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who has worked on several Taser cases, argued that excited delirium has become a convenient way to explain away deaths that occur at the hands of police.

"There are plenty of medical examiners who are very skeptical of excited delirium," he added. "But that is not what Taser is promoting . . . They attribute almost all of the deaths following a Taser strike to excited delirium."