As Taser warns of more risks, cities bear a burden in court
CINCINNATI — Officer Richard Haas says he never meant for Everette Howard to die. He just wanted to stop him.
A top high-school grad staying on the University of Cincinnati campus for a college prep program, Howard, 18, had broken no laws that hot August night in 2011. It was about 3 a.m., and he was agitated after a run-in with neighborhood kids who had tried to rob his friends.
Blocks away, university police officer Haas’s radio crackled with reports of an assault. Nearing the scene, he intercepted several people running away and ordered them to the ground. He unholstered his Taser and panned its red sighting beam over them “to get their attention.”
Howard, shirtless, approached from behind with his dorm adviser, Ricky Pleasant, who had placed the 911 call. Get down, Haas said. “We’re not the ones you’re looking for,” Pleasant replied.
Howard stepped forward. Pleasant thought the teen intended to kneel; Haas thought he intended to fight.
Haas fired his stun gun. One electrified dart hit below Howard’s lower left chest, the other near his waist. The 18-year-old collapsed, unconscious, and was pronounced dead at the hospital; the coroner ruled the cause “unknown.”
“I did not in my wildest dreams expect this kid to die,” Haas, a certified Taser instructor, told Reuters.
Howard’s family sued Haas in his official capacity as a member of the university’s police force, contending he did not heed warnings from the weapon’s manufacturer, Taser International Inc., to avoid chest shots because they can pose cardiac risks. The university settled for $2 million; Taser faced no litigation.
As Tasers have become a common weapon in U.S. policing, so too have legal cases. And as the human toll mounts, the litigation toll increasingly is borne by the public.
Police departments and the municipalities they represent have faced 435 wrongful-death suits over fatalities that followed the use of a Taser, Reuters found in a nationwide review of legal filings. The manufacturer was a defendant in 128 of them.
In all, wrongful death lawsuits were filed in at least 44 percent of the 1,000-plus incidents Reuters identified in which someone died after being stunned with a Taser by police. In nearly 75 percent of the suits, the Taser was one factor alleged in a broader array of force applied, such as punches, baton strikes and pepper spray.
In more than 60 percent of the resolved cases against municipalities, government defendants paid settlements or judgments. While many settlement amounts are unavailable or remain secret, Reuters documented at least $172 million in publicly funded payouts.
Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks mounted, Taser made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest. Since then, Taser has been a party to just one in five cases filed, and lawyers who frequently handle Taser-related litigation say the manufacturer’s warnings have made it far more difficult to successfully sue the company. So now, in nearly every case, plaintiffs are suing governments, not the manufacturer.
UNAWARE OF RISKS
On July 20, 2011, policeman Michael Forbes in Charlotte, N.C., responded to a reported altercation between a couple.
He found La-Reko Williams, 21, and his girlfriend “tussling” on a light-rail platform, “pushing and pulling” in an argument, court records show.
Williams began walking off as Forbes approached; the officer told Williams to stop, grabbing at his arm. Williams pushed Forbes’ hand away and turned to argue. The exchange was caught on Forbes’ body recorder.
“I ain’t gotta talk to y’all,” Williams said.
“You’re gonna get detained,” Forbes said. “Do not play with me.”
As Williams continued arguing, Forbes ordered him to the ground.
“You wanna get Tased?” he asked. Seconds later, his Taser’s darts struck Williams’ chest, knocking him to the ground in pain. Forbes ordered Williams to roll onto his stomach, then pulled the Taser’s trigger again, delivering a second shock. Williams died.
The family sued, saying the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department failed to train officers properly on Taser’s chest shot warnings. The family’s lawyer, Karonnie Truzy, asked Forbes whether the department ever told him to avoid targeting the chest.
“I don’t believe so,” Forbes testified. “We were trained that the Taser is a nondeadly force option, and that it’s reasonably likely not to cause death or serious injury.”
The city lost at trial, and paid $706,479 to cover the family’s damages and legal fees.
“It’s a deadly weapon,” said Williams’ mother, Temako McCarthy. “Call it for what it is.”
The family initially sued Taser, too, but Truzy dropped the company from the case because of Taser’s warnings against chest shots.
Tuttle, the manufacturer’s spokesman, said police ultimately make the call when to deploy the stun guns. “Taser provides instruction on how to operate its weapons, but it does not and cannot make agency policy on when, where or how its weapons are to be used,” he wrote.
In some cases, Taser has assisted plaintiffs lawyers in lawsuits against the company’s own clients — by providing affidavits to support the argument that police did not abide by its warnings.
That happened in an Arizona lawsuit alleging Jorge Sanchez, 31, died after a police officer shot him in the chest and discharged the Taser repeatedly during a confrontation in 2012.
Sanchez’s mother initially sued Taser, the police and the city of Phoenix. Taser was dropped from the case after Michael Brave, the company’s national litigation counsel, provided the plaintiffs with a 10-page affidavit in 2015. It included a 10,914-page attachment listing Taser’s training communications with Phoenix Police, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
“It’s brilliant when you think about it from a legal standpoint,” said Devon Jacob, the family lawyer. “Pretty much the only way you could have Taser liable at this point is for them to be aware of some sort of danger that they have not warned about.”