Electrical “stun guns” are increasingly sold both for self-defense and as a means for law enforcement officials to incapacitate violent individuals without using lethal force. The device is commonly known as a taser, since many popular models were manufactured and sold by TASER International (now Axon). However, the legal issues in these cases and the experts that may be required to address them remain similar regardless of which manufacturer produced the device.
Tasers and Unlawful Force
Most civil claims regarding tasers fall into one of two categories. The first are claims against public entities like police departments, cities, and counties. These claims often allege that the use of a taser during a police encounter constituted excessive force.
One example is a 2017 traffic stop in Glendale, Arizona, in which police used a taser on a front-seat vehicle passenger after the passenger refused to show identification, then allegedly “continued to argue, yell, and physically resist” as police attempted to remove the passenger from the vehicle.
The stop resulted in police using tasers a total of 11 times, at least one of which may have involved contact with the passenger’s exposed genitals.
The lawsuit filed against Glendale and its police department claimed that the taser use was an example of “unlawful, unnecessary, unreasonable, and excessive force,” violating the plaintiff’s civil rights.
Cases like these often focus on whether the behavior of law enforcement officers was appropriate, given the particular circumstances in which it occurred. The case may also question a city or county’s training protocols and supervision of police officers who are issued tasers. Finally, some cases look at how the tasers themselves are inspected, stored or operated by the entity in charge of them.
Taser Defect Claims
The second type of case typically involves claims that the taser itself is defective. These claims may accompany an unlawful force claim, or they may be made separately.
Here, key issues include whether the device’s manufacture or design made it unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. Since tasers are intended to conduct an electrical charge, these cases may also explore whether the warnings that accompany the device are sufficient to alert users as to the risks they pose.
Taser Injury or Wrongful Death Claims
A taser works by delivering an electrical current that disrupts voluntary muscle control, resulting in temporary incapacitation. Depending on which muscles are contacted by the device, the recipient of the shock may experience localized pain or strong muscle contractions.
Although they are currently considered non-lethal, tasers can pose serious risks in certain circumstances. For some individuals, exposure to a taser can cause cardiac arrhythmia, which can progress to cardiac arrest. The presence of certain other conditions, like an underlying heart condition, use of certain drugs, or exposure to force or violence prior to the shock may increase the chances of a taser triggering cardiac arrest.
The physiological effects of tasers on a plaintiff’s body may be an issue in both types of taser cases.
Experts Commonly Used in Taser Cases
The types of experts demanded in a particular taser case will depend on the facts of the case and the legal theory applied. Experts who commonly appear in taser cases include medical experts, engineers and designers, and experts on police department or administrative protocols regarding the training, storage, and use of tasers.
For example, in Heston v. TASER International, Inc. (2011), the plaintiffs sought damage for wrongful death, arguing that taser exposure had caused cardiac arrest in their 40-year-old son. At trial, they introduced evidence from two expert witnesses: a cardiologist with experience in cardiac electrophysiology, and a medical examiner with extensive history performing autopsies.
Although the Ninth Circuit later vacated the damages awards to the plaintiffs, it affirmed that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting testimony from the two experts, stating that “both witnesses were sufficiently qualified by ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education’ to testify regarding the effects of the M26 TASER device on Heston’s body and the ultimate causes of his death.”
The Ninth Circuit also found that the studies the experts relied upon “were sufficiently analogous to this case to support the expert witness’s theories of causation,” since the studies focused on the relationship between taser use and blood acid levels and examined aggravating factors that were present in Heston’s situation.
Heston v. TASER International, Inc. suggests that attorneys seeking expert witnesses in taser-related cases will need to focus their efforts on finding experts with specific experience and knowledge regarding either the device itself or the effects of electrical charges like the device’s on the human body. For cases in which taser storage or maintenance is at issue, experts with knowledge about handling electrical and other non-lethal defense devices may be helpful as well.