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Fontenot & Turner v. Taser International, No. 12-1617

Decided: November 22, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment in favor of the plaintiff on the liability aspect of the negligence claim, but remanded for further proceedings with respect to damages.

Darryl Wayne Turner, age 17, died from cardiac arrest after a confrontation with police in which he was struck in the chest by electrical current emitted from a device commonly known as a “taser,” manufactured by TASER International, Inc. (TI). Turner was an employee of a Food Lion supermarket located in Charlotte, North Carolina. On March 20, 2008, Turner engaged in several acts of misconduct and the store manager terminated Turner’s employment for insubordination. However, when Turner refused to leave the store, his supervisor placed a telephone call to a 911 operator and requested police assistance. Turner acted aggressively throughout the entire incident and threw an umbrella and pushed a store display off a counter; however, he did not make physical contact with anyone during the dispute. Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) Officer Jerry Dawson arrived at the scene and instructed Turner to “calm down,” but Turner continued behaving in an aggressive manner. Officer Dawson aimed the taser’s red “laser” dot at Turner’s chest and, when Turner stepped toward Officer Dawson, deployed the taser on Turner. After two darts struck Turner, he stayed on his feet and walked toward the store’s exit. As a result, Officer Dawson held down the taser’s trigger until Turner eventually collapsed, and then discharged the taser for an additional five seconds once Turner had fallen to the ground. When paramedics arrived, Turner was experiencing ventricular fibrillation and was unresponsive. After being taken to a hospital, Turner was pronounced dead.

From the introduction of the X26 taser in 2003, through the events at issue in this case, TI instructed taser users that the electrical current emitted by the X26 taser had no effect on heart rhythm. This information was used in training CMPD officers, including Officer Dawson. TI also provided visual depictions of the taser’s darts being fired at the middle of a person’s chest; therefore, Officer Dawson and other officers were trained to aim the taser at a suspect’s chest. TI’s primary warning was included as part of its Training Bulletin, issued in June 2006, in which it cautioned that prolonged exposure to the electrical discharge may impair breathing and respiration. Notably, this TI Training Bulletin discussed only the potential for respiratory harm, rather than the risk of severe cardiac problems. Shortly after the TI issued the 2005 Training Bulletin, two TI-funded studies revealed that the taser’s electrical pulses could capture cardiac rhythms, potentially leading to ventricular fibrillation. However, TI did not alter its training materials to warn users.

Turner’s estate initiated a negligence action against TI, primarily based on its failure to warn and, on appeal, TI raised four primary arguments. First, TI argued that the district court erred in barring TI’s contributory negligence defense. However, North Carolina’s Section 99B-4(3) requires that the claimant have “used” the product before the defense of contributory negligence can arise. In addition, every North Carolina product liability case addressing contributory negligence, whether under the current or former version of Section 99B-4(3), has involved a claimant’s actual use of the allegedly defective product. Finally, the Fourth Circuit observed that application of the contributory negligence doctrine under the present circumstances would absolve TI of its responsibility to provide adequate warnings to persons using TI’s tasers, and effectively would grant TI immunity from suit in North Carolina negligence actions that are based on police use of a taser on a suspect resisting arrest.

Second, TI argued that the district court erred in failing to direct a verdict in TI’s favor because the evidence purportedly failed to establish that an appropriate warning about the dangers of the X26 taser would have caused Officer Dawson to use the taser in a different manner. However, the Fourth Circuit held that there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have concluded that Officer Dawson would have used the X26 taser in a different manner had TI provided an adequate warning concerning the dangers of firing the taser to make contact near a person’s heart. Officer Dawson testified that he read Taser’s training materials, received information about the taser’s safety during a “refresher” training course, and received instructions from CMPD trainers to aim the taser at a suspect’s chest.

Third, TI argued that the district court erred in failing to award judgment in TI’s favor on the basis of product misuse. TI contented that Officer Dawson misused the X26 device by employing it on Turner for 37 continuous seconds and that such misuse was contrary to the instructions and warnings provided by TI. However, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the jury had ample grounds on which to find that the warning was not “adequate.”

Finally, TI argued that the district court’s remittitur decision resulted in an excessive award that was not supported by the evidence. Because Fontenot failed to present any evidence showing that Turner’s services, care, and companionship had a value approaching $1000-$2000 per week, per parent and because there was no testimony concerning whether, and for what duration, Turner’s parents reasonably expected Turner to continue providing services such as babysitting his younger siblings and assisting with household chores, Fontenot essentially invited the jury and the district court to engage in the type of “pure conjecture” that North Carolina courts have prohibited.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop