Taser Deaths: Who is Responsible

The rise in the use of tasers (stun guns) has predictably led to a rise in taser deaths.  For many years now, tasers have been classified as “non-lethal” force.  However, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, should that classification change?

Here is a table released by the Orlando Police Department classifying tasers as “non-deadly” force

Use-of-Force Continuum

Suspect resistance Officer use of force
1. No resistance 1. Officer presence
2. Verbal noncompliance 2. Verbal commands
3. Passive resistance 3. Hands-on tactics, chemical spray
4. Active resistance 4. Intermediate weapons: baton, taser, strikes, nondeadly force
5. Aggressive resistance 5. Intermediate weapons, intensified techniques, nondeadly force
6. Deadly-force resistance 6. Deadly force

Adapted from the Orlando, Florida Police Department’s Resistance and Response Continuum

Substantial evidence shows that tasers are more deadly than commonly appreciated.  According to Amnesty International, between 2001 and 2008, United States law enforcement killed 351 people with tasers.  From 2009-2014, another 196 deaths have been attributed to tasers.  In total, 547 people have been killed by police employing tasers as “non-leathal” force.

A Justice Department study published in 2011 concluded that police using stun guns should avoid shooting suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods of time to reduce the risk of potential injury or death. But the study also found that using stun guns to subdue unruly or uncooperative suspects is appropriate.

With 547 deaths and counting, should police departments continue to encourage tasers as “non-lethal” force?

Who can be Held Liable for Taser Deaths?

There are two main theories of liability for taser deaths: (1) a cause of action against the police officer/police department; (2) a cause of action against the manufacturer. These two causes of action can be broken down further. As you will see below, an officer’s liability (negligence) stems from the improper use of a taser, while the manufacturer’s liability stems from the failure to warn:

Police Liability

  • Using a taser for a prolonged period of time.  Tasing for over 20 seconds is generally considered excessive.
  • Using a taser repeatedly or tasing multiple times.  Tasing a suspect 16 times as you will see below is considered excessive.

Manufacturer Liability

  • Providing improper training materials to the police.
  • Not providing necessary warning materials regarding prolonged use or excessive use.
  • Failure to provide sufficient warnings about the weapon’s risk for people with heart conditions.

Taser Death Lawsuits

In 2008, 17 year old Darryl Turner was tased to death by a Charlotte police officer because Mr. Turner was upset and unruly after losing his job. Mr. Turner’s family sued the taser manufacturer (Taser International) for failure to warn. Mr. Turner died of cardiac arrest when the police officer fired the taser twice, holding the trigger for 37 seconds and then for 5. The officer who tased Mr. Turner stated that he was trained to aim for the “center of mass” and that he had no reason to think that shooting the taser into the boy’s chest would result in death. A jury found that the taser company failed to provide the police with adequate instruction.

In a similar California case, 43-year-old Allen Kephart was tased 16 times by the police. Mr. Kephart went into cardiac arrest for 2-3 minutes and died at the scene. Mr. Kephart’s family sued to police department and settled for $4.25 million dollars. Taser death lawsuits are not easy.

Cases of justified “tasing”

  1. A disorderly conduct suspect evaded arrest, refused to show his hands when instructed, told officers that they would have to shoot him, and the back-up officers had requested hadn’t arrived (McNeil v. City of Easton, 694 F.Supp.2d 375 (E.D. Pa. 2010)).
  2. A suspect stopped for a malfunctioning license plate light refused to obey instructions, verbally confronted the officer, and acted aggressively (Draper v. Reynolds, 369 F.3d 1270 (11th Cir. 2004)).

Tasers are lethal.  If they are used inappropriately, their use can also be negligent.  If you are thinking about a lawsuit involving a taser related death, give us a call.  At Cuthbert Law Offices, we are available 24 hrs. a day to respond to serious emergencies.  Email us at  or call us at 1-804-733-3100.