Taser Wrongful Deaths January 14, 2010.

In the movies and on TV, a wrongful death is usually resolved inside of an hour. This isn’t the case in real life.

Movies and TV shows don’t usually take the time to explain to their viewers that there is a difference between a civil lawsuit and a criminal action. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit, and is not resolved in criminal courts. Another point of interest here is that even if someone has been found innocent in a criminal case, they may still be sued in a wrongful death suit. The most well-known example of this is the O.J. Simpson debacle.

Put another way, non-criminal cases are tried in civil court and the types of cases may run the gamut from product liability claims to the question of whether Tasers (used by police to subdue suspects) cause wrongful deaths. They are not easy cases to try, nor are they easy cases for the jury to deliberate, as nothing is ever black and white when it comes to situations like this. Typically speaking then, a jury is asked to figure out if a wrong did occur and if it did, who carried what percentage of the responsibility for that wrong. In other words, this is referred to as apportionment of fault.

Let’s take a look at an example, and use a highly controversial and "hot" topic relating to cases currently being litigated dealing with suspects killed as the result of the police using a Taser. Tasers zap a current into a person and while it is supposed to temporarily incapacitate them, it may kill them instead. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise given the voltage being used, which is 50,000 volts. This is hardly an insignificant amount of current.

If you read the papers lately, you’ll note that Taser deaths are on the increase. Nevertheless, these instruments are very popular with the law enforcement community. When a wrongful death case involving a Taser fatality goes to court, it is up to the jury to try and decide if a wrongful death did occur, then who is responsible. The company who makes this instrument, Taser International, vehemently states it does not produce enough zing to kill. The police insist the risk in situations involving the use of a Taser is up to the suspect. In other words, by acting up and acting out, they may invite Taser use.

Juries have found in a variety of ways on a case-by-case basis and generally speaking, the company isn’t found to be at fault. The usual outcome has been that juries will apportion responsibility between the police and the dead suspect. This means an award of a total damage figure and then the reduction of the award by the percentage applicable. For instance: the finding may be 60% responsibility to the police and 40% to the deceased. After apportionment, the city would pay 40% of damages awarded.

Despite the fact that Taser International has so far gotten off scot-free, one case did catch up with them where they were found to be 15% at fault in a 6 million verdict. If you do the math, that should mean they’d be liable to pay about $900,000. Whether or not they actually will pay that amount is questionable once the apportionment figures are understood. Chances are the amount will be smaller, but the headlines look much better when they read six million dollar verdict returned.

If you think you have a wrongful death case, you need to speak to a seasoned lawyer who will assess your case and then advise you on what needs to be done. Not every death is a wrongful death, and your attorney will explain that to you.