Taser to pay $1.4 million in man's death: Judge says unfair to make

family pay attorneys' fees

Monterey County Herald (California) February 6, 2009

Copyright 2009 Monterey County Herald

Monterey County Herald (California)


February 6, 2009 Friday


BYLINE: Virginia Hennessey, The Monterey County Herald, Calif.


Feb. 6--A federal judge on Thursday ordered Taser International Inc. to pay more than $1.4 million in fees to the lawyers for the family of Robert C. Heston, who died in 2005 after Salinas police stunned him dozens of times.


Judge James Ware acknowledged that the $1,423,000 award far exceeds the $183,000 in damages he approved for Heston's family, but said the attorneys had taken on a considerable risk in pursuing a case that served a significant public benefit.


The case marked the first time Taser was found negligent in a death related to the use of its stun guns. In June, a jury awarded Heston's family more than $5 million in damages after finding that Taser failed to warn Salinas police of the potentially fatal dangers of shocking a subject numerous times.


Ware later threw out most of the damages, noting that the jury found Heston 85 percent at fault because he was high on methamphetamine at the time and that the panel could not legally award punitive damages.


On Thursday, Ware said it would be unfair to the family and attorneys John Burton and Peter Williamson to take their contingency fees from the jury's award.


Taser International issued a statement saying it would appeal the decision.


Burton said he has already warned the company that if it appeals, he will seek reinstatement of punitive damages.


The company, he said, is irresponsible to the public, to police departments and "to its shareholders, who now are being exposed to reimposition of $5 million in uninsured losses because of their egos."


In July, Heston and Peterson will take Taser before another federal jury in the case of Michael Robert Rosa, 38, of Del Rey Oaks, who died in 2004 after he was stunned multiple times by Seaside police.


The city of Seaside recently agreed to pay $225,000, without admitting fault, to settle the case. That settlement is awaiting approval by the Seaside City Council.