A lawsuit filed Monday in the September death of a 21-year-old man whom Vallejo police repeatedly shocked with a stun gun accuses manufacturer Taser International of knowingly marketing a dangerously defective weapon as safe and “non-lethal.”
The product liability lawsuit filed in Solano County Superior Court on behalf of the late Andrew Washington Sr.’s 2 1/2-year-old son, Andrew Jr., adds to the growing controversy about Taser stun guns. According to Amnesty International, 94 people have died in the United States and Canada after being shocked with stun guns by police. Amnesty is calling for a moratorium on Taser use until independent medical research resolves safety concerns. In Northern California, seven deaths after police Taser use have occurred since August, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Defendants Taser International … knew that the Taser gun that caused (Washington’s) death was defective in design, and that the defective design increased the risk of serious injury and death to persons in normal use of the gun,” according to the lawsuit filed by Walnut Creek attorney on behalf of Washington’s son.
The Vallejo Police Department is not a defendant in the lawsuit, because police may “have been misled by Taser to believe that this gun was safe.”
Andrew Washington Sr. died Sept. 16 after fleeing police following a minor accident in which he struck a parked car.
Officers chasing him on foot fired a Taser at Washington as he climbed a fence, causing him to collapse into a shallow canal. Police then zapped him about five more times “because when the Taser was not on, Washington appeared to be trying to crawl away,” according to a coroner’s report. Officers noticed the man was having trouble breathing and called an ambulance, but he was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
An autopsy report ruled Washington’s death an accident, caused by “cardiac arrest associated with excitement during (the) police chase and cocaine and alcohol intoxication, occurring shortly after Tasering.”
Dr. Arnold Josselson, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, has said that he could neither rule the stun gun in or out as a contributing factor in the death, because it would leave no physical evidence.
Washington had a 0.19 percent blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal threshold for a drunken driven violation and a “minimal” amount of cocaine in his system, those factors would not have killed an otherwise healthy young man.
“It was the Taser that killed the decedent in this case,” the attorney said. “He was a very healthy young man. His arteries were not clogged on autopsy. His heart was not enlarged.”
“There were no other factors that could have caused this death, but for the electrical shock to the heart that was delivered by the Taser,” he added.
Tasers fire twin metal barbs that emit a 50,000-volt charge into a suspect, causing them to collapse from loss of muscular control.
Taser International did not respond to requests from comment Monday. Previously, company officials have maintained that the stun gun does not generate enough electrical current to disrupt the heart. Instead, Taser has blamed deaths on suspects who have drug or alcohol intoxication or underlying health or psychological problems that often trigger death during the physical exertion of a police confrontation.
But medical experts say Taser ignores established medical evidence that shows that people intoxicated with drugs and people who are fleeing have heightened levels of adrenaline in their systems and may be more vulnerable to having their heart rhythms disrupted by a Taser shock. This could trigger a potentially fatal chaotic state known as ventricular fibrillation, causing cardiac arrest.
“I’ve seen the Taser folks say, ‘Oh, the guy had cocaine in his system, that’s the reason for his death, ”said Dr. Zian Tseng, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist at UCSF who specializes in heart-rhythm disorders. “Well, someone with cocaine in their system is also much more prone to a Taser induced cardiac arrest.”
“They cannot say that it’s safe in my opinion,” he added.
Taser says company studies where researchers shock anesthetized pigs confirm the stun gun can’t trigger erratic heart beats. Tseng said knocked-out pigs won’t have the same panicked adrenaline response of a suspect clashing with police.
“So what can you say: It was safe on anesthetized pigs,” Tseng added. “It’s far from a real world test.”