Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Electrocution Victim's Family Routed in California Taser Death Case

Hat Tip to Eddie G. Griffin (BASG).

Unfortunately, it seems that the estate of Robert Heston, and his family, have been routed so far in the electrocution device suit they first filed and was first heard in San Jose District Court and then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Perhaps the family and their lawyers will petition for en banc (full court) review of the three-judge panel opinion, although their is no inherent right to en banc review and it is mostly granted in cases considered to be of great importance.

With so many District Court appointments to be made and affirmed by the US Senate still, this case was heard by a three judge panel, composed RYMER and N.R. SMITH, Circuit Judges, and "The Honorable Ronald B. Leighton, United States District Judge for the Western District of Washington, sitting by designation."

Bloomberg reported in June 2008 that:

A San Jose, California, jury yesterday said Taser had failed to warn police in Salinas, California, that prolonged exposure to electric shock from the device could cause a risk of cardiac arrest. The jury awarded $1 million in compensatory damages and $5.2 million in punitive damages to the estate of Robert Heston, 40, and his parents. The jury cleared the police officers of any liability.

However, the District Court judge immediately threw out the punitive damages, while affirming the jury's compensatory damages finding.

Now, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit  has affirmed the lower court's denial of punitive damages AND thrown out the compensatory damages as well. 

In overturning the compensatory damages, the Ninth Circuit said:

4. However, the district court abused its discretion when it affirmed the jury’s compensatory damages award to the estate. While the estate presented evidence suggesting that Heston was treated by emergency medical technicians, transported to the hospital, and received continuing medical treatment, it presented no evidence at trial showing compensable “loss or damage that the decedentsustained or incurred before death, . . . not includ[ing] any damages for pain, suffering, or disfigurement.’” County of L.A. v. Superior Court, 981 P.2d 68, 70 (Cal. 1999) (quoting Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 377.34; emphasis altered). Thus, although the trial judge had discretion to “weigh the evidence” when it considered TASER’s motion for a new trial, it abused that discretion by denying the motion where there was simply no evidence to weigh in support of the jury award. See Air-Sea Forwarders, Inc. v. Air Asia Co., 880 F.2d 176, 190 (9th Cir. 1989). We accordingly reverse and vacate the compensatory damages award.

In affirming the denial of punitive damages, the Court of Appeals found that:

Under California law, punitive damages may be awarded when a plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that a defendant acted with “such a
conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may
be called willful or wanton.” Taylor v. Superior Court, 598 P.2d 854, 856
(Cal. 1979) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Cal. Civ. Code
§ 3294(a). Here, TASER made efforts, albeit insufficiently, to warn its customers
about the risks posed by prolonged TASER deployment. While this may amount to negligence, it does not rise to the level “willful or wanton” conduct. Tomaselli v. Transamerica Ins. Co., 31 Cal. Rptr. 2d 433, 444 n.14 (Ct. App. 1994) (such conduct must be “inconsistent with the hypothesis that [it] . . . was the result of . . . mere negligence or other such noniniquitous human failing.”). Moreover, although the jury found that a “reasonable manufacturer” would have known that prolonged TASER deployment may cause cardiac arrest, it answered “No” to the question asking whether TASER actually “knew” of that risk. We accordingly affirm the district court’s order vacating the punitive damages award to the estate.

The only victory for the plaintiff's lawyers and the public is that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected a requested by Taser International that the plaintiffs pay Taser's legal fees. 

The Ninth Circuit Appeals judges said,

"Each party will bear its own costs." 

because there was sufficient merit to the case that plaintiffs should not be penalized for having brought the case in the first place.

Had the plaintiffs been ordered to pay legal fees it would have dissuaded families across the country from filing  complaints against Taser International. 

Overall, this is a particularly bad case result for Taser petitioners, even though the presiding judges said,

This disposition is not appropriate for publication and is not precedent except as provided by 9th Cir. R. 36-3.

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