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Department vs.TASER

Illinois department challenges Taser International’s safety claims

By Laura L. Scarry

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Technology is a great thing. Who would have thought 100 years ago that we would be able to send human beings through outer space, communicate over wireless networks and tape record our favorite television shows to view at a later time? No doubt, these technological advances are taken for granted by youngsters.

Law enforcement officers, especially new recruits, may also take for granted some of the tools now available to them. For example, some officers cannot imagine going out on the street in a squad car not equipped with a properly functioning video camera or mobile data terminal. Other officers feel incomplete without carrying a canister of pepper spray or a Taser on their duty belts.

The implementation of technology in any field—and the law enforcement field is no exception—requires testing a new product in many forms to determine its usefulness, effectiveness and safety. Recently, a municipality challenged the safety claims made by Taser International, Inc., a company that manufactures and distributes Tasers to law enforcement agencies across the nation.

The Lawsuit

Not surprisingly, the Taser has seen an increase in use by police officials within recent years. Anecdotally, a variety of reasons have formed the basis for police administrations to equip their police officers with the Taser, one of which is to provide alternatives for the use of force in a variety of arrest situations. Other reasons for the implementation of Tasers include minimizing the risks of harm to both arrest subjects and police officers, and, truthfully, to minimize the risk of civil litigation in arrest situations.

However, in July 2005, the main supplier of Tasers to law enforcement agencies found itself facing a civil lawsuit from a somewhat unusual plaintiff—a municipality that recently purchased Tasers from the company. The Village of Dolton, a small community located just outside of Chicago, Ill., filed suit on behalf of itself and all other municipalities similarly situated against Taser International as part of a class action lawsuit titled Village of Dolton vs. Taser International, Inc., Case No. 05 C 4126, N.D. Ill., July 18, 2005, hereafter referred to as the Complaint.

The Village of Dolton Police Department has approximately 44 full-time and 15 part-time, state-certified police officers. Interestingly, the Complaint makes no mention of any incident involving a Dolton police officer’s use of the Taser or the effects of the Taser on an individual arrested by a Dolton police officer. Instead, Dolton claims that Taser International markets the devices as “‘safe’ and ‘non-lethal,’ despite the fact that the product has never been adequately or independently tested for safety and has been involved in numerous deaths and serious injuries across the country.”

The Complaint further states that Taser International “widely markets its Tasers expressly as ‘non-lethal,’ ‘safe’ alternatives to guns and deadly force,” and that the corporation “claims its Tasers have no adverse long-term health consequences.” The Complaint also alleges that due to its aggressive safety marketing and purported “extensive research, Taser International has enjoyed significant sales of its Tasers.”

Specifically, Dolton challenges Taser International’s reliance on and alleged distortion of a number of scientific or medical studies conducted on Tasers as part of the company’s claim that the product is safe. Dolton also asserts it and other municipalities relied on Taser International’s “bogus safety claims” in deciding to purchase the Taser as another tool for law enforcement officers in various arrest situations.

Dolton further claims “at no time did [Taser International] disclose to plaintiff Dolton [Police Department] that Tasers could result in death or serious physical injury, such as cardiac arrest … Had [Dolton and other purchasers of the Taser] known of the true dangerous propensities of Tasers and the falsity of Taser International’s claim of extensive medical research, they would have taken steps to avoid those dangers and would not have purchased Tasers from the company.” To add insult to injury, Dolton adds that Taser International’s “safety assertions are clearly false. For many people, the use of Tasers … has resulted in death, often as a result of cardiac arrest. Put simply, Taser International’s ‘extensive’ medical research is anything but.”

If the lawsuit makes no mention of any incident involving any negative consequences as a result of a Dolton police officer’s use of the Taser on an individual creating a risk of civil liability, why is Dolton filing suit?

In sum, Dolton claims it’s out several thousands of dollars as a result of purchasing equipment that’s purportedly unsafe for use by law enforcement officials. Without going into any great detail, each count of the seven-count Complaint is premised on a breach-of-contract claim stemming from the “bogus safety claims” made by Taser International in its marketing campaign.

Interestingly, Dolton goes to great lengths in providing background information regarding inconclusive studies that Taser International allegedly relies on for its “safety campaign” (approximately 20 pages’ worth) but expends very little effort in citing facts to support its claim that Taser is responsible for a number of serious physical injuries and deaths in recent years.

No doubt, Taser International’s defense team will take the opposite approach, pointing out the number of cases involving Tasers in which the cause of death was inconclusive and highlighting the vast number of deaths prevented because law enforcement officials were armed with Tasers. It will be awhile before we know the outcome of this civil litigation, but we’ll publish the result in a future article.

What Do We Take from This?

In conclusion, technology can improve the way business is conducted, and law enforcement is no exception. That said, police officers must stay abreast of any legal controversies surrounding technological advances, including the implementation of Tasers within the police community.

Keep in mind the lawsuit against Taser International does not involve a claim that the use of Tasers constitutes “excessive force” in and of itself, or that its use otherwise automatically violates the civil rights of individuals subjected to it. Instead, the claim against Taser International simply alleges a breach of contract for the company’s purported failure and/or deception that the product is completely safe.

Thus, while police officers trained to carry the Taser should understand they can be held civilly liable if their use of the Taser is deemed to be unreasonable (and therefore in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution), they don’t need to worry that they will automatically be subject to civil liability just because they carry a Taser.                       

Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.

Laura L. Scarry is a partner in the law firm of Myers, Miller & Krauskopf in Chicago, Ill. She represents law enforcement officials against claims of civil rights violations in state and federal courts. Scarry was a police officer with the Lake Forest (Ill.) Police Department from 1986-1992.

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