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A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court ruling on Taser International Inc.'s liability in the death of a teenager, but remanded the case for a new trial on the $5.5 million in damages awarded in the case.
An incident involving 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner taking a bottle of water from the supermarket where he worked without paying for it kicked off an escalating series of confrontations with store management that ultimately led to his death after he was shot in the heart with a Taser by a Charlotte, N.C., police officer, according to Friday's ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., in Tammy Lou Fontenot as administratrix of the estate of Darryl Wayne Turner and Devoid Turner v. Taser International Inc.
Mr. Turner's mother filed a product liability lawsuit against Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser, alleging the company negligently failed to warn users of the risks posed by the X26 Taser used in the incident and, in particular, to warn them to avoid applying the electrical current near a subject's heart, which was the case with her son. She also alleged that the company's negligence resulted in her son's death.
A federal jury in Charlotte, N.C., found in her favor and awarded her $10 million in compensatory damages, which the court lowered to $6.15 million. After reducing the award to account for funds Ms. Fontenot had received from a workers compensation award and a settlement with the City of Charlotte, the court awarded $5.5 million.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court panel affirmed the lower court's judgment upholding the jury verdict that imposed liability on the company for its negligence.
It said the X26 Taser used in the incident “had been the subject of several academic studies. (Taser International) knew about these studies, in which researchers had concluded that the device posed a risk of ventricular fibrillation, a cause of cardiac arrest, especially when the electrical current from the Taser was applied near the subject's heart. Nevertheless, (Taser International) failed to warn Taser users to avoid deploying the Taser's electrical current in proximity to the heart.”
In holding there should be a new trial on damages, the appeals court said, “We have no doubt that Turner had significant value to his parents, and that they are entitled to a substantial award for the loss of his services, care, and companionship.
“However, we cannot agree that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Fontenot, met the required 'reasonable level of certainty' to establish that such services, care and compensation had a monetary value approaching $6.15 million.”
The district court “abused its discretion,” the appeals court said in remanding the case for a new trial on damages.
In a separate ruling in 2012, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that based on the information available at the time, Taser International could not be held liable for not issuing warnings that repeated exposure to its product could lead to death, in upholding dismissal of a 2004 wrongful death lawsuit.