Wrongful Death Suit Filed in Case of Man with Epilepsy Restrained and Tasered by Police
August 5, 2008
Stanislaus County, CA—the parents of a man with epilepsy who died after being restrained and tasered by Stanislaus County (California) Sherriff’s Department deputies filed a lawsuit against the County alleging that the deputies used excessive force in violation of the man’s constitutional rights. The action also names as a defendant Taser International, the manufacturer of Tasers, and alleges that the Taser device used by the police was unsafe and that the company violated its legal duty to warn about the danger to the public posed by the device.
The Epilepsy Foundation’s Legal Defense Fund is providing assistance to the attorneys handling this case and has been working with other attorneys handling cases involving similar incidents, which appear to be part of a disturbing trend.
In this case, James Edward Wells died on August 15, 2007, allegedly as a result of being tasered and restrained by deputies, who were responding to a call that Mr. Wells had attempted to force his way into a neighbor’s home. The suit alleges the following facts: according to witness statements, Mr. Wells had experienced a tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure, and, as a result of post-seizure confusion (which typically follows such seizures), wandered from his home and attempted to enter his neighbor’s house. When police officers arrived, Mr. Wells approached them in a non-threatening manner; because of his impaired consciousness, he was not responsive to their commands to stop. In an effort to subdue Mr. Wells, police officers struck him in the throat and attempted to wrestle him to the ground. When these efforts were unsuccessful, one officer tasered him several times, and multiple officers pepper sprayed him in the face and struck him on the legs with batons. When Mr. Wells fell to the ground, he was face-down; police handcuffed him behind the back, applying pressure to his back with their bodies. A short time later, Mr. Wells stopped breathing and died.
It is further alleged that officers delayed in providing Mr. Wells CPR. An autopsy report indicated that, in addition to other injuries, eight of Mr. Wells’s ribs were fractured, possibly caused by the pressure applied to him when restrained.
The action alleges that the deputies violated Mr. Wells’s constitutional rights by using excessive or deadly force and seeks compensatory and punitive damages. The action also claims that the Sheriff’s department was at fault because of its failure to properly train and supervise its officers regarding the use of force (including restraint) when confronting persons experiencing seizures. Based on the facts alleged, it appears that, due to the lack of such training, the deputies assumed that Mr. Wells was intentionally combative and possibly high on illicit drugs. (Tests showed that Mr. Wells had no illicit drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the incident.)
It is well-known that practices such as hog-tying (binding hands and feet behind one's back) and/or placing one prone and applying force to the back or the neck may lead to asphyxiation. Additionally, continued patient struggling after restraint application can lead to cardiac arrest. The Foundation has repeatedly stated that forcible restraint is known to cause people having seizures or who are in the post-seizure confused state to involuntarily resist or fend off the restraint, thereby leading to charges of combativeness, and increasing the risk of harm to both the individual and law enforcement.
All first responder agencies should adopt protocols and training requirements to ensure that law enforcement officers and others properly identify and respond to persons experiencing seizures. The Foundation has developed a number of informational resources on these issues, including a training curriculum for law enforcement agencies.
Additionally, there are many unresolved questions about the safety of Tasers, which have been deployed by a large number of law enforcement agencies around the country.
Critics claim that the devices, which deliver a high level of voltage to the body in order to incapacitate the individual, have been associated with a growing number of deaths when used to subdue criminal suspects, especially when used on high risk individuals (e.g., those with medical conditions).
Tasers are marketed to law enforcement agencies as a non-lethal alternative to deadly force. However, at least one jury recently found that the manufacturer of the device was partially responsible for the death of an individual who was tasered by police, issuing a multimillion dollar award in punitive and compensatory damages to the man’s family. The jury found that the company failed to properly warn users that the device could be dangerous or even fatal under certain circumstances.