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Fourth Circuit Upholds Verdict in Taser Death Lawsuit But Calls for New Damages Trial – Fontenot v. Taser Intl.

By December 6, 2013July 23rd, 2019Product Liability

As police departments have increasingly adopted Tasers as a “no kill” solution to controlling unruly people, complaints have been growing about the health effects of Tasers. To people with heart conditions, or who are Tased near the heart, Tasers can in fact be deadly. Unfortunately, the plaintiff in Fontenot v. Taser International lost her 17-year-old son when he was Tased in the chest and then suffered cardiac arrest. She filed a products liability lawsuit in North Carolina district court, alleging that Taser International negligently failed to warn users that the particular model used could cause death from ventricular fibrillation if aimed at the victim’s chest. The jury agreed that Taser was liable and awarded her (after offsets) $5.5 million. TI appealed, arguing that neither the verdict nor the damages award was supported by the evidence. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict but remanded for a new trial on damages.
Darryl Wayne Turner, the 17-year-old victim, was caught eating food he hadn’t bought from his workplace, a grocery store. One of his supervisors caught him and sent him home for lunch while supervisors discussed the matter. When he returned, he was out of uniform and rude to supervisors, so he was fired. He refused to leave the store and was argumentative, so supervisors called the police for help removing him. The responding officer drew his Taser and instructed Turner to calm down. When Turner stepped toward the officer, the officer aimed at Turner’s chest, as he had been trained to do, and fired. Turner’s muscles didn’t lock up, as most people’s do; he walked away with the Taser darts still in his chest, so the officer followed and continued to send electricity through the device. He then collapsed. Paramedics found him in cardiac arrest and were unable to revive him.
Tammy Lou Fontenot, Turner’s mother, sued for failure to warn users that it could cause cardiac arrest, especially when aimed at the chest. Evidence from the case showed that TI said there was no change to Tased subjects’ heartbeats, and encouraged users to aim for the chest and abdomen. That was true even after TI-funded studies found a risk of cardiac arrest in animals. The district court barred any consideration of contributory negligence, saying Turner himself didn’t “use” the Taser. The jury ultimately awarded $10 million to Fontenot, which the judge reduced to $6.15 million as excessive, and then adjusted to $5.5 million after subtracting workers’ compensation and a settlement with the city of Charlotte.
The Fourth Circuit first rejected TI’s argument that the jury should have considered contributory negligence. The statute plainly requires that the claimant have used the product, the court said, and to find otherwise would leave TI with no duty to warn anyone about risks. The Fourth also disagreed that TI was entitled to a directed verdict, saying the jury could reasonably have decided that police would have used the Taser differently if they had been warned. And the officer did not misuse the Taser by sending electricity through it for 37 seconds, the court found; the jury had ample evidence to find that the warnings were not adequate. However, the Fourth did find that the jury award was excessive, in part because there was no evidence entered about the value of Turner’s care and companionship. It sent the case back for a new trial on damages only.
Damages for the death of a young adult are a very difficult issue. Nobody’s life can be valued exactly according to money. Most parents would say that their children’s love, care and companionship are priceless. But in a wrongful death lawsuit in Missouri or anywhere else, money is the tool juries have to compensate parents who have lost a child. That’s why they go through the difficult process of putting a price on a life. Families pursuing this kind of claim can also ask for damages for the loss of the deceased person’s future wages, which is a very important claim when the family has lost a breadwinner to someone else’s negligence. To learn more about what you can claim, don’t wait to talk to an experienced products liability attorney.

Carey, Danis & Lowe represents people across Missouri and southern Illinois who have suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one because of an unreasonably dangerous product. For a free consultation, send us a message online or call today at 1-877-678-3400.
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