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One day after a West Palm Beach, Fla., police officer using a Taser gun shot a man, who later died, a Boca Raton, Fla., law firm filed a national class action suit alleging that police departments have been misled about the device’s safety. The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chicago by Paul Geller, a partner at Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins in Boca Raton. It claims that police departments around the country developed policies on Taser use based on the manufacturer’s false and improperly researched claims that the stun guns are nonlethal. The only named plaintiff in the suit so far is the police department of Dolton, Ill., a largely black Chicago community with 26,000 residents. No suspects have died as a result of Taser use by the Dolton Police Department, but Chief Ron Burge suspended use of Taser stun guns in May. Burge could not be reached for comment. The suit alleges breach of contract, breach of warranty and unjust enrichment by the defendant based on bogus safety claims and false and deceptive representation of material facts concerning the product’s safety. The complaint says that “the true extent of the harmful effects of Tasers are unknown, in direct contrast to the company’s marketing. Thus, despite touting its potentially deadly product as harmless, Taser International has no idea of how Tasers impact, among others, pregnant women, the elderly, young adults and children, individuals with heart conditions and individuals with implantable cardiac devices.” “Taser marketed these devices, based on inadequate research, as nonlethal substitutes for deadly force,” Geller said in an interview. “They’re getting some information from the field now, aren’t they?” Bonnie O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Taser International in Scottsdale, Ariz., said her company would not comment because it hasn’t seen the suit. In the past, Taser International has maintained that the deaths associated with use of the device were not caused by the device. Other suits filed against Taser International have been filed by the next of kin of people who died after being shot by Tasers. This is the first known class action and the first known suit by a police department alleging that the company damaged the department by misleading it concerning the safety of the product, Geller said. The suit seeks class certification for all entities that purchased Tasers for law enforcement purposes. Geller said he expects other police departments to join the suit soon. West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel said she will have her counsel investigate the matter and will watch the progress of the suit “with great interest.” A representative of the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declined to comment. Earl Johnson Jr., a Jacksonville plaintiff lawyer who has filed product liability claims against Taser International in connection with individual wrongful death claims, said Geller’s suit is the first such action he’s heard of filed by law enforcement agencies. But he expects many more because, in his view, because the company has “fundamentally misrepresented” its product to police agencies. “After these agencies find themselves defendants in these wrongful death and unreasonable force claims, they’ll turn their attention to Taser, which coaxed them into believing that regardless of how the product was used, it was nonlethal,” said Johnson, who has asked a federal judge to enjoin Taser International from selling its products in Florida. Taser “hung law enforcement out to dry.” More than 100,000 police officers nationwide reportedly carry Tasers. The devices are used by more than 180 police agencies in Florida and by more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies nationally. The Taser stun gun, which looks like a pistol, uses compressed nitrogen to fire electrified barbs connected to the gun by insulated copper wires. Once the probes strike, the target is subjected to a 50,000-volt electric shock that lasts at least five seconds and — in most cases, although not all — proves incapacitating. Phil Smith, former chairman of Taser International, described the feeling of being shot with a Taser as “like hitting your funny bone 15 times per second over your whole body.” The shock is designed to wipe out a target’s neuromuscular control for five seconds, long enough for an officer to slap on handcuffs. Since Tasers were developed in 1999, there have been about 105 reported deaths of suspects in confrontations with law enforcement officers using Tasers, according to a 2004 study by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Amnesty International cites 74 such deaths. Florida leads the nation in Taser-related deaths with more than 30. The Palm Beach Post reported 29 in May, and there have been several deaths since then. The man who died early Sunday after West Palm Beach police shot him with a Taser was Michael Leon Crutchfield. The 40-year-old, who had a lengthy criminal history, forced his way into an assisted living facility, police said, and began choking residents while screaming that someone was trying to kill him. An autopsy is scheduled to determine the precise cause of Crutchfield’s death. Last month, Pharoah Knight, 33, died after being shot by a Miami-Dade County Police Department officer as he allegedly tried to break into a Miami Gardens home. Police said Knight had acted irrationally and ignored commands to surrender. Also last month, Horace Owens, 48, of Fort Lauderdale died after a sheriff’s deputy shot him with a Taser after he invaded a home in West Park. Also in that county, last December a Coral Springs man died after being shot with a stun gun by Hollywood police. Also in December, Timothy Bolander died after being shocked with a Taser by Delray Beach police officers. The officers said Bolander resisted arrest in a domestic disturbance. A medical examiner’s report found that he was high on cocaine. Some studies have suggested that being shot by a Taser can be fatal for persons who are high on cocaine or on an adrenalin rush. A number of the people who died in South Florida after being shot with a Taser were suspected of being high on drugs. Mayor Frankel said that Crutchfield “might have been in a cocaine frenzy.” Cocaine has been documented as a potential cause of heart rhythm problems. Geller’s new suit cited an article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoting cardiologists saying that Tasers are significantly more dangerous for bodies flooded with adrenaline. The suit also cited a newspaper article by a University of California cardiologist who wrote that electrical shocks to the heart during “vulnerable periods in the cardiac cycle” can cause “dangerous arrhythmias.” Geller’s suit was filed in federal court rather than in state court, the complaint said, because the aggregate amount of damages would exceed $5 million and because the plaintiff police department and the defendant company, a Delaware corporation operating out of Arizona, have “complete diversity of citizenship” as required under the Class Action Fairness Act, which governs federal class actions. The suit alleges that police departments developed policies on Taser use based on false and deceptive marketing information from the company regarding the devices’ safety. The lawsuit also raises the issue of police using Tasers in situations where they otherwise would not use deadly force. It cited a Denver Post study that reported that 90 percent of persons shot with Tasers by the Denver Police Department were unarmed and two-thirds faced only a misdemeanor charge of citation. The suit also cited a Palm Beach Post study of Taser use in Palm Beach County that showed that police had used the devices on three pregnant women, an 86-year-old man, children as young as 13 and in at least 237 incidents to get compliance from “passively resisting or fleeing suspects.” In an interview, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bruce Rogow, who’s not involved in the new class action suit, said that with Tasers, “what you see is that police are less restrained because they feel they’re not using deadly force when they might have been more restrained about using a gun or club. There’s kind of an emotional disconnect that leads to more use than might be appropriate.” Police chiefs in Palm Beach County are in the process of drafting statewide legislation regulating the use of Tasers that they hope will be introduced into the next session of the Florida Legislature. The New York Times reported last year that Taser International’s research on the gun’s safety is “spotty and inconclusive. The company’s primary safety studies on its most powerful weapon consist of shocks administered to one pig and five dogs.” The suit described these and other Taser safety studies as “severely inadequate.” Last November, the Air Force Research Laboratory reported that the Taser device “may cause several unintended effects, albeit with estimated low probabilities of occurrence.” The suit comes at a time when sales of the device have slowed as the controversy surrounding its use has grown. Taser International is facing investor suits as its stock struggles. The company’s stock opened at $10.20 a share on Monday, the day this suit was filed. Its high during the past year exceeded $33 per share. Amnesty International has said that a long-term study of the effects of Taser use is needed.

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