Study links Taser strikes with cardiac arrest: lawyer

Sitting at the kitchen table in his small house, Steven Butler has trouble even with a very simple question. He cannot tell you the day of the week or the month, and he has to have the help of a calendar to tell you the year.

Sitting at the kitchen table in his small house, Steven Butler has trouble even with a very simple question. He cannot tell you the day of the week or the month, and he has to have the help of a calendar to tell you the year.

“Once a moment is gone, it’s gone,” said his brother and caregiver, David Butler says in an interview to air on CNN. “He can’t remember any good times, birthday parties, Christmas, any event.”

On Oct. 7, 2006, Steven Butler, by his own admission, was drunk and disorderly.

He refused an order from a police officer in his hometown to get off a city bus.

The officer used his Taser three times.

According to doctors, Butler suffered immediate cardiac arrest. He was revived by emergency medical technicians who happened to be close by, but his attorneys say his brain was deprived of oxygen for as long as 18 minutes. He is now permanently disabled.

Butler and his family have filed a lawsuit – not against the police, but against the maker of the weapon, Taser International.

John Burton, a lawyer based in Pasadena, California, says he can prove that when the weapons are fired directly over the chest, they can cause and have caused cardiac arrest. In addition, Burton says he can prove Taser knew about that danger.

“Well, we can prove that by early 2006,” said Burton, “but we suspect they had all the necessary data since 2005, since they were funding the study.”

The study Burton mentions was published in early 2006 by the American College of Cardiology Foundation. Funded by Taser, it focused on pigs struck by Tasers, with the conclusions, according to the study, “generalized to humans.”

The authors wrote that being hit by a Taser is unlikely to cause cardiac arrest, but nevertheless recommended Taser darts not be fired near the heart to “greatly reduce any concern for induction of ventricular arrhythmias.”

Dr. Douglas Zipes, a cardiologist based outside Indianapolis, Indiana, plans to testify against Taser in any lawsuit regarding what happened to Butler. In plain English, he says, that recommendation is a clear warning.

“I think Taser has been disingenuous and certainly up to 2006 – the case we are talking about – Taser said in their educational materials that there was no cardiac risk whatsoever,” Zipes said.

“That Taser could not produce a heart problem, that there was no long lasting effect from Taser.”

Medical experts say that if a person is hit by a Taser dart near the chest, one result is a dramatic increase in the subject’s heartbeat – from a resting 72 beats a minute to as many as 220 beats a minute for a short period of time.

The company has significantly changed its recommendations for how Tasers should be used.

Officers, it said, should no longer aim for the chest when using the device, instead targeting the arms, legs, buttocks.

Why the change?

A company document said “the answer has less to do with safety and more to do with effective risk management for law enforcement agencies.”

In other words, say lawyers who have sued Taser, it means police are less likely to be sued if they avoid hitting subjects in the chest.

“Out of one side of their mouth, they publish this warning, saying, ‘Don’t hit people in the chest if you can avoid it,’” said Dana Scruggs, an attorney representing Steven Butler. “And on the other side, in the lawsuit and in their public statements, they deny that their device can affect the human heart.”