(CN) - A woman whose 17-year-old had a fatal heart attack when a police officer Tasered him cannot take home $5.5 million in damages, the 4th Circuit ruled.
The confrontation occurred at a Food Lion supermarket in Charlotte, N.C., on March 20, 2008, after a store manager fired 17-year-old employee Darryl Wayne Turner for insubordination.
When an irate Turner refused to leave the store, Officer Jerry Dawson with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department arrived to escort him out.
Turner refused to calm down, however, leading Dawson to point the red "laser dot" from his Model X26 Taser at the subject's chest, as he had been trained.
Dawson fired and, when Turner did not immediately collapse, continued to emit an electrical shock into Turner's body for 37 seconds before Turner collapsed. The officer held the trigger for an additional 5 seconds of shock once Turner was on the ground.
Turner was in ventricular fibrillation when paramedics arrived and was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Dawson later testified that he had no reason to think that firing the X26 at Turner's chest was dangerous because he was trained to aim it towards a subject's "center of mass," and TI's various training materials since 2003 state essentially "that application of the X26 Taser had no effect on a subject's heart rates."
Turner's mother, Tammy Lou Fontenot, then sued the weapon's manufacturer Taser International Inc., for product liability.
She claimed that TI negligently failed to warn X26 users of academic study results that showed the device posed a risk of ventricular fibrillation, which can cause cardiac arrest, especially when the electrical current from the Taser was applied near the subject's heart.
A jury ultimately found that the company had been negligent and awarded her $10 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad Jr. then reduced the judgment to $5.5 million, but a divided three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit deemed this amount still too high Friday.
The 39-page majority opinion emphasizes that the multimillion award implies "that Turner's services, care, and companionship had a value approaching $1000-$2000 per week, per parent."
"We have no doubt that Turner had significant value to his parents, and that they are entitled to a substantial award for the loss of his services, care, and companionship," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the Richmond, Va.-based court. "However, we cannot agree that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Fontenot, met the required "reasonable level of certainty" to establish that such services, care, and companionship had a monetary value approaching $6.15 million. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the district court abused its discretion. Accordingly, we hold that TI is entitled to a new trial on damages."
Chief Judge William Traxler argued in a dissenting opinion that the lower court should have awarded Taser International judgment as a matter of law on the basis of contributory negligence.
He noted that Turner's inappropriate hostile actions included knocking down a display, throwing an umbrella and saying "fuck the police" when Officer Dawson appeared.
"Turner took unreasonable actions that a reasonable person would realize would prompt a physical response - and then a further physical response - from Officer Dawson," Traxler wrote. "By virtue of this negligence, Turner 'assumed the risk of whatever injury he might receive as a result.'"