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Court holds that Taser manufacturer owed no duty to warn of cardiac ramifications

In yet another death of a young black man in a police encounter, Robert Mitchell, a 5' 2", 128 pound, asthmatic 16-year old, suffered a cardiac arrest after being Tasered by City of Warren police.  Mitchell was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for an expired plate.  He "panicked" and fled to an abandoned building, where he was surrounded by six officers.  It was reported and apparently undisputed that when beckoned, he approached the officers with arms extended, not resisting, only to be tasered by one of the officers.  He suffered an episode of ventricular fibrillation and could not be resuscitated. 

It was later confirmed that there was no contraband and there were no drugs in the vehicle and no one was arrested or charged with any crime.  No evidence of any crime--other than the expired plate--was ever unearthed.

The boy's mother filed a lawsuit against the officers alleging that excessive force was used against her son.  The civil action against the officers was later partially dismissed and the family's lawyers added a count of product liability against the manufacturer of the Taser.  The family argued that the manufacturer's warnings about potential cardiac risks with the use of the Taser were inadequate.  The family argued that if police had been adequately warned of the fatal risks of using a Taser, Robert would not have been Tasered under the circumstances of his non-aggressive flight.  The trial judge summarily dismissed this claim, holding that Michigan's "reformed" product liability statute did not form the basis for a lawsuit.

Two judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.  A third judge, Bernice Bouie Donald,  dissented.  She noted that the majority had not fully explained the circumstances of Robert's arrest and death, and that the majority's reasoning in dismissal was "flawed."  She noted that the proper test to be applied in this product liability context was not the manufacturer's "actual" knowledge of potential risks, but rather what the manufacturer "should have known."  The dissenting judge objected to the majority's adoption of Taser "propaganda" to justify dismissing the Mitchell family's lawsuit.  She particularly objected to the majority's failure to address the fact that a North Carolina jury had rendered a verdict against Taser on a similar theory, fully a year before the Mitchell boy's death.


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