Last week the Dalton Daily Citizen reported that a federal appeals panel sided with Whitfield County deputies in a lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died in 2005 after being shocked by a taser.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a federal judge’s decision to rule against the lawsuit brought by the family of Melinda Neal Fairbanks. Deputies shocked Fairbanks in 2005 as they arrested her for walking into a stranger’s home. According to court records, she had smoked meth earlier that day and was in a delusional state. Deputies used the taser because she was hitting and kicking them.
The death certificate stated that the cause of death was malignant hyperthermia (overheating) caused by methamphetamine toxicity. An inquest found that toxic levels of meth had caused her body to overheat. Family members disputed the claim. The appeal panel said that while the death was “unfortunate,” the federal judge had ruled appropriately.
Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood told reporters that he had not been officially notified of the decision, but “if that is indeed the case, we are very pleased,” he said. County attorney Robert Smalley had no comment.
Fairbanks died in June 2005 after being arrested by deputies. She had walked into a stranger’s home and started opening cabinets and doors. Fairbanks was outdoors when deputies arrived, and she started kicking and hitting when they tried to arrest her. She was shocked with a taser after a struggle with deputies.
The $15 million lawsuit was filed against Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, Taser International, and Hamilton Health Care System in U.S. District Court in Rome on behalf of Fairbanks’ children. The lawsuit alleged that the tasering and subsequent beating by law enforcement officials led to her death and that she was denied medical treatment. The lawsuit also alleged false arrest and false imprisonment.
While tasering has led to many untimely deaths, lawsuits against law enforcement officials and Taser International are usually unsuccessful. However, in December 2006, Gwinnett County officials settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of a taser victim who died in jail after being repeatedly shocked with a taser. Ray Charles Austin, former inmate of Gwinnett County Jail, reportedly suffered from mental illness. After an altercation with a deputy, he was tasered, restrained, and given psychotropic drugs. The coroner’s report stated that the taser could have contributed to the heart attack that killed him. Austin’s family received $100,000 to settle the wrongful death lawsuit. Taking advantage of a county ordinance that allowed settlements of $100,000 or less to happen without a public vote, county officials did not make any kind of public declaration or put the decision up for discussion or vote. The county officials also restricted the victim’s family and all involved in the case from speaking about the settlement. The media learned about the settlement only through open court records.
Last year a federal jury awarded $6 million to the family of Robert Heston, Jr, who was killed after police tasered him approximately 30 times. The verdict was against Taser International, the manufacturer of the taser, for failing to “warn police that stun guns could be dangerous when used on people under the influence of drugs or in conjunction with chest compressions.”
If you or a loved one have been injured due to negligence, contact an experienced Atlanta personal injury lawyer immediately. Call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.