The courtroom fireworks surrounding Merck’s battle for survival in the ongoing state and federal Vioxx trials in New Jersey and Texas have captured the headlines for the past several weeks.
During that time, however, another major corporation has been in a similar struggle to save itself from the injuries and deaths claimed to be caused by one of its products.
Stun gun manufacturer, Taser International Inc., of Scottsdale, Arizona, has been embroiled in a number of legal problems including: state and federal personal injury and wrongful death cases; federal class-actions challenging the advertising and marketing claims made by the company; a federal inquiry into claims made by Taser with respect to its safety studies; an SEC probe of an end-of-year sale which appeared to inflate sales in order to meet annual projections; and reports that Taser was deeply involved in a Department of Defense study that company officials touted to police departments and investors as ‘independent’ proof of the stun gun’s safety.
This information is surfacing at a time when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general are pursuing inquiries into safety claims that the Scottsdale firm has made.
Taser International Inc. has also been notified by the NASDAQ Stock Market that its stock could be delisted for failing to file its third-quarter financial report on time.
As a result, the stun gun maker’s shares fell as low as $6.50 a week ago. Despite the company’s spirited defense with respect to the safety of its product, Taser International’s stock has continued to fall from $33.45 in December 2004 to $9.72 on July 30. Last Friday’s closing price now represents a decline of just over 80% in Taser’s value in less than one year.
Over the past two years, safety concerns have continued to mount against the company on three fronts: (1) increased reports of deaths and injuries directly associated with the use (or abuse in many cases) of the stun gun; (2) deaths and injuries indirectly associated with the device; and (3) injuries to law enforcement officers during training exercises involving the Taser.
Another challenge to Taser’s dominance in the stun gun market occurred earlier this week when Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, announced that his deputies will begin testing 30 new stun guns as an alternative to Tasers. This could only have been regarded with concern by Taser International, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
According to Arpaio: "Stinger tells me their weapons have better target attainment, they cost less and are cheaper to operate. If those claims are true, I may very well move away from Taser weapons."
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) chapters of Nevada and Northern California mounted a two-front assault on Taser International. In Nevada, the ALCU filed a $10 million federal wrongful death and civil rights action arising out of the death of 47-year-old Keith Tucker who died after being shocked multiple times with a Taser during a struggle with the Las Vegas police.
In a report released by the ALCU (Northern California), the safety of the Taser stun gun has been questioned on several levels. "While the Taser stun gun has the potential to save lives it poses a serious health risk as long as it remains largely unregulated," the report released in San Francisco states.
In early September a Chicago teenager was caused to go into ventricular fibrillation as a result of being shocked with a Taser. That was significant because Taser International has always maintained that its stun guns cannot cause this usually fatal heart disturbance in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood.
Many lawsuits allege Taser has ignored credible research suggesting the device can be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.
For example, using a number of sources, The Arizona Republic has now compiled a list of 153 cases in the United States and Canada since 1999 where a death followed the use of a Taser stun gun. (http://www.azcentral.com/specials/taser/#).
“The Arizona Republic, using computer searches, autopsy reports, police reports, media reports and Taser’s own records, has identified 153 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike since September 1999. In 21 cases, medical examiners said Tasers were a cause, a contributing factor or could not be ruled out in someone’s death. In 31 cases, coroners and other officials reported the stun gun was not a factor. Below is a synopsis of each case. The Republic requested autopsy reports for all of the cases and so far has received 49.”
On January 6, 2005 Taser officials disclosed that federal authorities had launched an inquiry into claims made by the company with respect to its safety studies. The Securities and Exchange Commission was also probing an end-of-year sale which appeared to inflate sales in order to meet annual projections.
In May, The Arizona Republic also reported that “Taser International was deeply involved in a Department of Defense study that company officials touted to police departments and investors as ‘independent’ proof of the stun gun’s safety…This information is surfacing at a time when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general are pursuing inquiries into safety claims that the Scottsdale firm has made.”
On July 17, the Associated Press reported a Texas man died after being shocked between three and six times with a Taser by an off-duty police officer who was acting as a security guard. The man’s wife said she was suing Taser International because her husband “didn’t deserve the death penalty.” It appears the men had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.
Although there had been a surge in Taser use in 2003 and 2004, safety concerns and mounting circumstantial evidence of potentially deadly risks associated with the device have caused sales to plunge in 2005.
This includes a specific finding by the Coroner of Cook County, Illinois, that a Taser was, in fact, the cause of death of a man arrested in Chicago.
That report came at the same time police officers in five states were filing lawsuits against Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes.
One officer, a Missouri police chief, alleged that he suffered heart damage and two strokes after he volunteered to be shocked with a Taser in April 2004, while hooked up to a cardiac monitor that was supposed to show the Taser was safe. The officer also claimed he suffered hearing and vision loss as well as neurological damage.
Other injuries claimed by the officers involved include spinal fractures, burns, a dislocated shoulder, and soft-tissue damage. A previous lawsuit file in February 2004 alleged a sheriff’s deputy suffered a fractured back in 2002.
The lawsuits challenge Taser International’s central marketing claim that its device is safe and charge the manufacturer of misleading its customers concerning the potential risks posed by the stun guns. Taser is also accused of minimizing and misrepresenting the 2002 fractured back case even after its own doctor found a one-second shock from a Taser caused the injury and that the company withheld reports of injuries to at least 12 other police officers.
It is the fractured-back-case that became the first product-liability case against Taser to go to trial. The case being tried in Phoenix involves allegations from a former Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputy, Samuel Powers, who claims a one-second jolt from a stun gun in 2002 fractured his back and ended his career.
According to the Arizona Republic, Mr. Powers’ lawyers charge that “Taser officials misled officers about the safety of the stun gun by misrepresenting medical studies, failing to perform adequate tests and downplaying the potential for injury.” They claimed in “their opening statements…that before being shocked during mandatory training, Powers was given constant reassurances that the stun gun ‘did not, has not, and could not cause any long-term injuries.’”
Taser is defending itself by alleging that “Powers’ medical history, saying evidence showed he had years of back problems and a bone disease that left him vulnerable to the shocks. They denied Taser misled police departments about the safety of its stun guns.”
Taser had originally blamed the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office for Powers’ injury. Immediately after Powers sued Taser, the company claimed the Sheriff’s Office should be held responsible for "unreasonably requiring" officers to be shocked.
In a motion from February 24, 2004 Taser stated: "If there is evidence that the shock from the (Taser) caused any injuries or damages to the plaintiff (the Sheriff’s Office) and/or Sheriff Joe Arpaio are at fault for unreasonably requiring the plaintiff to be shocked by the Taser as part of its non-lethal weapons training."
Of course, that is the same Joe Arpaio who has now announced that his deputies will begin testing 30 new stun guns from one of Taser’s competitors (Stinger) with an eye on moving “away from Taser weapons."
According to the Arizona Republic, pictures “of Powers getting shocked were shown to jurors Wednesday. They showed Powers standing between two deputies, who were supposed to keep him from falling. Electrodes were attached to his left ankle and right shoulder. The shock, which lasted no more than a second, appeared to cause Powers to yell in pain as his body contracted and he fell forward.”
Taser’s attorney told the jury that Powers was given ample warnings about the stun gun’s risks and, despite his previous back injuries, agreed to go forward. "The warnings provided to Samuel Powers, as well as warnings to any other police departments, were adequate."
The attorney “dismissed claims made by Powers’ lawyers that Taser intentionally misreported Powers’ injury as way to avoid admitting the stun gun hurt an officer.”
As to the misrepresentation of Powers’ injury in several filings with the SEC, Taser’s attorney called it a simple mistake. "What the big beef here is they just didn’t amend SEC filings."
The Arizona Republic article, however, pointed out that Powers’ lawyer stated “it wasn’t the first time Taser had misreported critical information. He pointed to a study that Taser cited for years as proof of the stun gun’s safety.
The study, a 1987 report by a California emergency-room doctor, compared gunshot injuries and Taser injuries.”
Taser, however, used the study to say that Tasers caused "0 percent long-term injuries" without mentioning that was only when compared with gunshot wounds. Taser claims the study’s findings were reported accurately.
”Gary Ordogg, author of the study, who is expected to testify, has previously said that Taser misused his study and that he has believed for two decades that stun guns can cause deaths.”
The outcome of this trial will likely affect the future of Taser International in a significant way regardless of which way the jury decides. Should Taser prevail, it will give the company more of a reason to adhere to its posture of denying anything is wrong with its product. Should Taser lose, however, the verdict may signal the beginning of the end for the once high-flying company that dominated its market.