(CN) – The plaintiffs in a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit involving the lethal use of a Taser can recover more than $1.4 million in attorney fees, a federal judge in San Jose ruled, because the favorable verdict conferred a significant benefit to the public.
Robert Heston died after officers with the Salinas Police Department shocked him repeatedly with Taser devices manufactured by Taser International. Heston’s parents filed suit against the city of Salinas, the individual officers involved and the company which manufactured the devices. The plaintiffs’ civil rights claims alleged the officers used excessive force. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the city and the police officers on this claim.
Another claim against Taser International was predicated on allegations that the company failed to provide warnings that repeated applications of the electrical current can cause cardiac arrest. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiffs on this claim.
The jury awarded $21,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages to Heston’s estate. The jury also awarded $6 million in damages to the parents. However, the jury found that Robert Heston was 85 percent comparatively at fault for his injuries. The judgments were accordingly reduced to $3,150 and $150,000 respectively, for a total of $153,150.
The plaintiffs moved for attorney fees. U.S. District Judge James Ware ruled in favor of granting the fees because the suit did not offer any chance at substantial recovery, in part because of Robert Heston’s own behavior.
The ruling states: “Plaintiffs move for attorney fees under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1021.5. This section provides an exception to the general rule that each party bears its own attorneys fees in litigation. California has identified four conjunctive requirements for applying the exception: (1) a plaintiff must be a successful party in an action resulting in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest; (2) a significant benefit must have been conferred on the general public or a broad class of persons; (3) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement must transcend the litigant’s personal interest in the controversy; and (4) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery.
“Whether an important public interest is at stake requires an examination of the subject matter of the action-i.e., whether the right involved was of sufficient societal importance.
“The use of Tasers by police departments has become increasingly widespread. Their growing prevalence as a law enforcement weapon makes the warnings given about their use an issue of significant societal importance. Thus, the issue of whether defendant Taser owes a duty to warn police about the risks of cardiac arrest under certain circumstances concerns an important right affecting the public interest.
“Here, plaintiffs directly affected a public interest because their lawsuit alleged that defendant Taser breached a duty to warn police departments about certain risks associated with metabolic acidosis and prolonged exposure to electric shock from Tasers.
“Plaintiffs contend that their successful verdict benefits the public in two significant ways. First, the verdict is causing police departments across the nation and the world to heed the risks of prolonged and repeated use of Taser electrical current. Second, the verdict will eventually cause defendant Taser to revise its training and warnings.
“In support of their motion, plaintiffs provide evidence that, as a result of this verdict, law enforcement officials all over the world are re-considering and potentially reforming their usage and training policies for Tasers. For example, plaintiffs provide excerpts from a special parliamentary report concerning the use of Tasers by a local Australian police department. The report specifically discusses plaintiff’s verdict.
“The notoriety of plaintiffs’ first-of-its-kind verdict, in some circumstances, has prompted a number of Taser customers and prospective customers to consider the risk of repeated and prolonged Taser electric charges on individuals in an excited or delirious state.
“Accordingly, the court finds that a significant benefit has been conferred on the public.
“Plaintiffs contend that the private burden of this litigation transcends their personal interest because significant compensatory damages were not feasible and the availability of punitive damages was uncertain.
“Since the purpose of § 1021.5 is to encourage public interest lawsuits that offer private litigants little personal incentive, a court must assess a plaintiff’s individual stake by considering the expected value of the litigation at the time they decided to bring suit.
“This case resulted in, for the first time, a successful verdict by a jury against defendant Taser for negligence which caused death. Thus, at the time that plaintiffs decided to bring this suit there was a significant possibility that plaintiffs would recover nothing. The expected value of litigation is further mitigated by plaintiffs’ and their counsel’s recognition that Robert Heston contributed to his own death through a history of drug abuse and use of methamphetamine at the time of his death.
“The court grants plaintiffs’ motion for attorney fees and awards to plaintiffs the amount of $1,423,127.”
Plaintiff is represented by John Burton out of Pasadena. Defendant is represented by Vincent Hurley out of Aptos, Calif.