August 24, 2017 / 11:13 AM / a year ago

Across the U.S., high-profile deaths lead to stun-gun case settlements

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Pulled over for a sobriety test in Northern California in 2014, James Greer took a step back from police officers. Shortly after, he was dead.

Thiago Sousa touches a flower drawn in wet concrete by Israel Hernandez-Llach in the Wynwood arts district in Miami, Florida, U.S., on December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Toxicology reports found the 380-pound Greer had PCP in his system, and the coroner officially ruled his death an accident.

Yet video of his encounter with the Hayward Police Department and Bay Area Rapid Transit Police showed that after Greer stepped back from police, officers swarmed him. He lost consciousness and died after he was stunned several times with a Taser and then placed in a restrictive hold, with one officer sitting on his back.

This year, the city and BART settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by his family for $1.07 million. Hayward agreed to pay $995,327.50, city officials said. The remainder came from BART, said Fulvio Cajina, the Greer family attorney.

The settlement agreement denies any liability on the part of the city, said Michael Lawson, Hayward city attorney.

The case is among at least 442 wrongful death lawsuits Reuters examined in a first-ever exploration of the litigation toll from fatalities that followed the use of a Taser. Many deaths, like Greer’s, received media coverage at the time. But the subsequent legal fights and settlements, spanning cases from Connecticut to California, typically received less attention.

Over the last three decades, municipalities and their insurers have settled or lost judgments in at least 63 percent of wrongful death suits involving Tasers at a cost of at least $172 million. In the 442 lawsuits, the families or heirs of the deceased contended the stun gun was a contributor to the death or part of a larger mosaic of force that led to the fatality, such as the use of restraint positions that hamper breathing. Most of those suits take aim at police or the governments they serve, but some also name the manufacturer as a defendant.

Among the settlements examined by Reuters:

• In Crescent City, California, June Sylvester called 911 on June 22, 2014, after her son, Daniel, experienced an episode of mental illness, according to a lawsuit. A fight ensued with the responding Del Norte County Sheriff’s Deputies, and Daniel Sylvester was shocked twice. He died at the scene, according to the complaint. In June 2013, the county settled the wrongful death suit filed by his mother for $550,000.

• Responding to a call for medical assistance, police officers from Middletown, Connecticut, shocked Efrain Carrion 34 times with a Taser after he was handcuffed, according to a lawsuit. He fell down a flight of stairs, crawled away and died on May 24, 2010. In September 2014, the city paid $925,000 to settle the wrongful death suit.

The city did not respond to an interview request.

• Responding to a domestic abuse call, Mobile, Alabama, police officers stun-gunned and allegedly beat Gregory Rachel in his front yard, a lawsuit filed against the city said. Rachel lost consciousness after police placed him in a prone position in a ditch, with at least one officer on his back, the lawsuit said. An emergency medical technician tried to revive him, but he died on May 1, 2012. In April 2016, Mobile paid $190,000 to settle the case. George Talbot, a Mobile spokesman, cited excited delirium as the cause of death.

• Hutalio Serrano-Granados died after a struggle with police officers from Colton, California, on January 15, 2012. He was shocked multiple times with a Taser and beaten by officers, according to a lawsuit. The pathology report concluded the struggle, a heart condition, obesity and methamphetamine combined to kill him, local news accounts reported. Colton paid $750,000 to settle the case.

The city did not respond to interview requests.

• In Las Vegas, Edward Lopez-Hernandez’s altercation with the Nevada Highway Patrol began after a road rage incident and a fight with a group of men on August 25, 2010, according to a lawsuit. The responding officers hit Lopez-Hernandez and stunned him 19 times, the suit said. He stopped breathing and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. On March 19, 2013, the state agreed to settle the case for $420,000.

The highway patrol did not respond to interview requests.

• On October 10, 2010, Karrem Abdul Ali, a mentally ill and unarmed elderly man, failed to respond to two Montgomery County, Maryland, police officers. While attempting to take Ali, 65, into custody, the officers pepper-sprayed him and stunned him, according to a lawsuit filed against the county. He lost consciousness, and died four days later in a hospital. The case settled for $450,000.

Officers were concerned Ali’s hand was near his waistband, and tried several times to move his hand before eventually employing a Taser, said Patricia Via, chief of litigation in the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office. The medical examiner concluded the contributing factors to Ali’s death were schizophrenia-induced agitation, obesity, an enlarged heart and police restraints, Via said.

Editing by Ronnie Greene and Michael Williams

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