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Taser keeps attackers, liability lawsuits at bay

TAMPA — No one knows now why Roney Wilson died.

But among those waiting for a medical examiner report will be the Arizona company Taser International.

A Hillsborough deputy deployed a 1,200-volt Taser stun gun three times last week on 46-year-old Wilson, whose brother had called 911, worried that Wilson was off his medication and having a mental breakdown.

His family thinks he died because he was shocked with a Taser.

Concerns about the Taser’s effects have dogged the stun gun for years, fed by incidents like this one. But Taser International has proven itself a masterful deflector of such complaints, vigorously fending off product liability lawsuits and even challenging the findings of medical examiners who cite the weapon as a contributing cause of death.

“There is a palpable concern in the medical examiner environment that people don’t want to get sued,” said Jeffrey Jentzen, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

In all, studies put the number of post-Taser deaths at about 300 since 1999. That compares with 606,000 total deployments on suspects and 758,000 on volunteers, according to the company. Tasers are used by 13,000 law enforcement agencies and widely accepted for officers seeking an alternative to bullets.

In the five years since Hillsborough County first equipped deputies, Sheriff’s Office data show the agency has deployed Tasers 725 times.

Wilson’s Sept. 11 death in Plant City marked the second time someone died after being shocked by a Hillsborough patrol deputy, sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.

A medical examiner ruled the first death, in 2004, accidental, caused by cocaine-induced “agitated delirium,” which is similar to “excited delirium,” a term frequently associated with Taser-involved deaths. Wilson’s case is still under review.

A father of three, Wilson was diagnosed as bipolar and had high blood pressure, said brother Jessie Wilson, who called 911 seeking emergency medical attention after Roney Wilson climbed in his mother’s truck, shattered the windshield with his fist and refused to budge.

Now the family is seeking an attorney. “They done killed him,” Jessie Wilson said.

• • •

Taser International forcefully challenges any suggestion the guns cause death. The company cites studies that indicate the Taser is effective and safe.

The American Medical Association isn’t so sure. The organization in June called for further study on the use of Tasers, noting concerns about their effects on people with mental illness.

A broadly worded Taser warning label cautions users of the potentially fatal risks of self-defense and use of force.

Jentzen, head of the National Medical Examiners Association, notes that Taser International is quick to challenge those who suggest Taser use can be fatal.

“It may be perceived by certain medical examiners as being intimidation,” Jentzen said.

The company has taken legal action against two medical examiners who — in either public statements or in an autopsy report — said the weapon had contributed to deaths.

In Summit County, Ohio, a judge ordered Chief Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler to strike the Taser’s mention from three autopsy reports after the company requested a legal review of the coroner’s findings. Kohler is appealing.

“We have held and will continue to hold medical examiners responsible for any untrue statements,” Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said. The company strives to inform coroners about the research involving Taser, he said.

Word has gotten around.

When contacted last week about the effects of Taser, Dr. Vernard Adams, Hillsborough County’s chief medical examiner, cited Taser International’s studies, saying the weapons show no adverse effect on heart function.

“Yes, I’m aware of the lawsuits,” Adams said in a followup interview. “I think we all are.”

But Adams said he’s not concerned. “I’m represented by the county attorney,” he said. “If Taser wants to sue me, it’s going to cost them money. I’m free to do what the statute tells me to do, which is determine the cause of death — not a cause of death.”

• • •

In Sheriff’s Office language, the Taser is considered a “less lethal” weapon. It’s hard to imagine any law enforcement officer using a Taser intending to kill. But Pinellas Park lawyer Joseph Saunders said the Taser’s safety is “overpromoted.”

Saunders is suing Taser International on behalf of a woman widowed by a man stunned by Polk County authorities in 2004.

In that case, the responding deputy was trying to help a man off a roadway who appeared to be hallucinating. He attacked her and she deployed her Taser to try to subdue and restrain him. “This police officer didn’t mean to kill the guy,” Saunders said.

The Hillsborough deputy who used the Taser against Roney Wilson was a former English teacher described by references in her personnel file as “considerate,” “even-tempered” and having an “outstanding work ethic.”

Deputy Mary Angelo, who is married to St. Petersburg Times news researcher John Martin, has been with the agency less than two years without disciplinary action. The Sheriff’s Office said she initially deployed the Taser when Wilson struggled as another deputy tried to physically remove him from the truck.

Lt. Kyle Cockream, who trained Hillsborough deputies in proper Taser use after the agency first began using them on a trial basis, said deputies are taught to recognize signs of “excited delirium.” However, nothing in their training bars them from still using the Taser if a situation warrants it, he said.

“Excited delirium” describes a physical response that some in the medical field say can by itself cause sudden death. Experts sometimes associate it with drug use and mental illness.

Symptoms include, according to a Canadian Medical Association Journal article from March, agitation, elevated heart rate, incoherence, bizarre behavior, a high tolerance for pain and a compulsion to break glass.

But skeptics at civil liberties groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union challenge whether the condition is real.

According to the CMAJ article, those who die of excited delirium are usually in police custody.

• • •

This summer, Taser International suffered its first major legal blow since its 1993 founding. A California jury ordered the company to pay more than $6-million to the family of a man who died in 2005 after he was stunned five times by police. The company requested a new trial.

Taser has had 74 product liability lawsuits dismissed and is currently named as a defendant in 38 wrongful death or personal injury cases, the company says. Asked about Wilson’s death last week, Taser spokesman Tuttle sent an e-mail response:

“Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known,” he wrote, “it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions.”

Times researchers Will Short Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

. fast facts TASER warning label: TASER Electronic Control Devices (ECDs) for citizens are weapons designed for lawful self-defense or defense of others by temporarily incapacitating a person from a reasonably safe distance while reducing the likelihood of serious injuries or death. Though they have been found to be a safer and more effective alternative when used as directed to other traditional self-defense use-of-force tools and techniques, it is important to remember that the very nature of self-defense, use of force and physical confrontation or incapacitation involves a degree of risk that someone will get hurt or may even be killed due to physical exertion, unforeseen circumstances, and/or individual susceptibilities.

Taser keeps attackers, liability lawsuits at bay 09/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 2:23pm]
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