By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Friday, September 3, 2010 at 1:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 at 1:05 p.m.
The parents of a mentally ill Sonoma County man who died after a sheriff's deputy shot him with a Taser are suing the manufacturer of the stun gun in federal court, claiming the weapon is unreasonably dangerous and unfit for use on human beings.
Nathan Vaughn, 39, had been fighting with his father on Dec. 20, 2008 when his mother called deputies to come to their Larkfield home.
When they arrived the fight was over and Vaughn had retreated into the rear of the house. A deputy entered and fired his Taser at least three times into Vaughn's chest, according to the lawsuit. Vaughn had a heart attack and died less than an hour later.
In January, District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua cleared the unnamed deputy of wrongdoing, blaming the abuse of prescription medicine, including the antidepressant bupropion, for the death.
But the parents, Doris and Ronald Vaughn, sued Arizona-based Taser International Inc. earlier this month, claiming product liability, fraud and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
The lawsuit alleges Tasers were sold without adequate warning or training about the effects of shooting into the chest, near the heart, repeated shocks or deploying the weapon on people who were mentally ill or under the influence of drugs.
“The weapons posed an unreasonable risk of serious bodily injury or death for people such as Nathan Vaughn,” said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Taser International did not return calls Friday seeking comment. A spokesman said in an e-mail that the company had not been served with the lawsuit and does not comment on pending legal action.
But in 2009 company officials issued a training bulletin to police agencies that recommended the point of aim in frontal shots be lowered from the chest area to the lower torso.
A company website describes the weapons as a life-saving alternative to regular guns and credits the devices with steep declines in officer injuries among departments using them. According to company reports, physical contact with suspects is decreased.
Last year, however, a San Jose court found Taser International liable for the death of a 40-year-old Salinas man and awarded his family $6.2 million in damages. In that case, Robert Heston, who was high on methamphetamine the night he died, was shot three times with Taser guns after he became violent at his parents' home.
It was believed to be the first product liability lawsuit the company lost and it sent stock prices plummeting.
In Sonoma County, there have been at least five Taser deaths since law enforcement began using the weapons around 2003. A Ukiah man died last year after being shot with a Taser three times after police said he assaulted a sergeant.
In all cases, investigations led by the district attorneys have cleared officers of wrongdoing.