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Golden Valley Taser case leads to significant payout

Barbara L. Jones//September 28, 2009

Golden Valley Taser case leads to significant payout

Barbara L. Jones//September 28, 2009

St. Paul attorneys Scott Swanson and Paul Applebaum last week procured a $200,000 settlement from the city of Golden Valley in a Taser case. (Photo: Bill Klotz)

The first stun guns were developed in California in the 1970s and used five to seven watts of electricity. A manufacturer called Taser International continued to develop the device, eventually coming up with a much more powerful version that eventually took on the company’s name. The models generally in use now use 25 watts and discharge 50,000 volts of electricity. More than 330 people nationally died after being tased between June 2001 and December 2008, according to a 2008 study by Amnesty International.

Police use of Tasers has led to civil law suits against police across the country, including cases in Minnesota.

Most recently, Sandra Brown settled a Taser suit against the city of Golden Valley. Police used a Taser on Brown while she was sitting in the passenger seat of her car talking on her cell phone to a 911 operator. Police had ordered her to hang up the phone.

St. Paul attorney Paul Applebaum represented Brown, who suffered no serious physical injury, but was traumatized by the incident and had to go on anti-anxiety medication.

The case settled last week for $200,000 without any admission of liability.

The settlement demonstrates that even when they do not involve death or major physical damages, a good Taser case is worth pursuing.

Conduct was key

In a recent interview, Applebaum told Minnesota Lawyer that his client’s case settled because he had a good client and police conduct in the case was egregious. While a lack of visible injuries can make a case challenging, arriving at a fair damage amount is possible, Applebaum said.

Had the case gone to trial, Applebaum planned to introduce testimony of his client, her friends, her family and her treating psychologist to demonstrate the emotional scars she had from the incident.

Minneapolis attorney Andrew Parker, who represents plaintiffs in excessive force cases, said the psychological damages from police misconduct are often more significant than psychological damages from other types of torts. When police abuse their position of authority and trust, the emotional damages escalate due to the seriousness of the situation, he continued. “Few people in society are given the right to carry and use arms,” he explained.

The position of trust afforded police can be a double-edged sword, Parker observed. He believes that while jurors are deeply offended by police misconduct once they are convinced it has occurred, they can be difficult to convince because of their presumptive trust of police.

Minneapolis attorney Robert Bennett, who also represents plaintiffs in excessive force cases, said that Tasers are a “police toy” that officers sometimes feel they have to use.

Bennett settled a case against the city of Lakeville for $675,000 after police used their Taser on a barefoot man standing on his roof in the winter. Police remained on the ground and were at the scene for fewer than eight minutes, Bennett said. The man fell off the roof and landed on the windshield of his car, sustaining a traumatic brain injury.

Bennett also settled a case on behalf of a woman who was tased approximately a dozen times by police, including while in the squad car, following a car accident in which alcohol was allegedly a factor. The case settled for $125,000.

Bennett also has an ongoing case in Brainerd in which police used a Taser on a man while he was riding a bicycle, causing him to fall. The man sustained severe injuries including a herniated disk and then contracted serious infections in the hospital. That case is “not going to be cheap,” Bennett predicted.

Bennett pointed out that the whole point of the Taser is to incapacitate the person’s control over his or her own muscles, so people can’t catch themselves when they fall. “Its own manual says it sends a series of energy pulses to overcome the body’s signals,” Bennett said. “Falling can be so serious.”

Taser cases have also been getting a lot of attention nationally. In New York, police Tasered a psychiatric patient, who then fell off a security gate and died. The officer who gave the order to shoot subsequently committed suicide. The patient’s family filed a wrongful death suit.

In Missouri, the city of Moberly agreed to pay $2.4 million to the family of a man who died after police struck him with a Taser three times following a stop for suspected drunk driving.

In California, UCLA agreed to pay $220,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by a student who was repeatedly stunned with a Taser gun by campus police after he refused to show his identification or leave the school library.

Last year, a jury for the first time found Taser International partially responsible for a death from one of its guns. The California jury awarded $6.2 million in damages, including $5.2 million in punitive damages, to the family of a man who died after being tased while he was on methamphetamines. Jurors found that the manufacturer failed too warn officers the device could be harmful if used repeatedly.

Taser was found 15 percent liable for the man’s death and the rest of the liability was attributable to the decedent. A judge later threw out the punitive damage award, leaving a total verdict of a little more than $1 million. Under California law, Taser was liable for 15 percent of the verdict, which came to $153,150. The judge also assessed $1.4 million in attorney fees against Taser.

Immunity overcome

Demonstrating damages and overcoming jurors’ high level of confidence in police are not the only obstacles in Taser cases. When taking on police and the governmental entities that employ them, plaintiffs also have to deal with sometimes thorny immunity issues.

Qualified immunity shields government officials for liability for civil rights violations unless the official’s conduct violates a clearly established constitutional or statutory right of which a reasonable person would have known.

Applebaum’s case against Golden Valley was stalled for three years while the issue of immunity went to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Davis denied the city’s motion for summary judgment, and, in an opinion issued earlier this year, the 8th Circuit affirmed. The court said that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to create a factual dispute over whether the officer willfully violated her right to be free of excessive force.

“At the time [the police officer] deployed his Taser and arrested [the plaintiff] the law was sufficiently clear to inform a reasonable officer that it was unlawful to Taser a nonviolent, suspected misdemeanant who was not fleeing or resisting arrest, who posed little or no threat to anyone’s safety, and whose only noncompliance with the officer’s commands was to disobey two orders to end her phone call to a 911 operator,” the court said. If the jury accepted the plaintiff’s recitation of the facts, it could find that the officer used excessive force and was not
entitled to immunity, the court said.

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