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Man's death spurs product liability debate over Taser use

In Montana and throughout the country, the use of Taser devices by law enforcement has increased based on the assumption that Tasers ultimately protect police officers, the public and the person being stunned. But there are also cases in which a Taser seems to have been the cause of death, though Taser companies and police departments certainly do what they can to discourage that perception.

For example, one man died this past June after being Tased. The man suffered from epileptic seizures, and police were called to his house after he apparently threatened to harm himself and others. A state trooper ended up firing a Taser and hitting the man in the chest. The shock stopped his heart.

An autopsy revealed that the man also suffered from heart disease and another, more contested condition: excited delirium syndrome. Medical professionals are split on whether excited delirium syndrome can cause a person's death, or even whether the condition is verifiable.

However, one company that manufactures Tasers -- Taser International -- will even approach medical examiners and suggest that a death linked to a Taser may have been caused by excited delirium.

Research of the condition really began ramping up around the time police started using Tasers. Now when a person dies after being hit with a Taser International stun gun, the company, apparently to avoid a product liability claim, will go out of its way to refer police departments to "the lead researcher on this matter." That lead researcher also gives paid testimony in lawsuits filed against Taser International.

Still, excited delirium syndrome is not recognized as a condition by either the American Psychiatric Association or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. One researcher at Yale University expressed his doubt about the condition. "It's usually an exclusionary diagnosis," he said. "If you can't find anything else, then you say that."

While the use of Tasers certainly isn't fatal in the vast majority of incidents, Tasers have been known to do more than temporarily subdue an individual. These dangerous products can kill, and people who have been injured or whose loved one was killed by a Taser should be aware of their legal rights.

Source: Burlington Free Press, "Experts question whether excited delirium can kill," Matt Ryan, Oct. 19, 2012

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