October 27, 2008

District Court Tosses $5.2 Million Punitive Damages Award Against TASER

Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California has issued a posttrial order vacating $5.2 million in punitive damages against TASER International.

The jury's award of punitive damages in this case made headlines because it was the first time TASER had lost a products liability suit. The suit was brought by the heirs of a man who died after police in Salinas, California shot him multiple times with a stun-gun manufactured by TASER. TASER maintained that the death occurred because the victim was high on crank. The jury assigned 85 percent fault to the decedent, but they nevertheless awarded $5.2 million in punitive damages to his estate and his heirs.

Judge Ware vacated the award of $200,000 to the estate because the jury made a special finding that TASER neither knew that it was creating a risk of harm nor consciously disregarded a scientifically knowable risk. Accordingly, there was no finding on which a jury could legally base an award of punitive damages. Judge Ware vacated the award to the heirs under California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.61, which prohibits the recovery of punitive damages in wrongful death actions. It is unclear from the court's order why the jury verdict form even allowed the jury to award such damages, but apparently plaintiffs' counsel conceded that "he saw the inconsistency in the verdict form when it was presented to him for review prior to closing argument," but did not call it to the court's attention. (See p. 13 of the order.)

TASER issued a press release about the ruling.