County draws line between itself, Taser

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County officials have consistently stood behind the company they purchase Taser stun guns from and the county's contracted medical provider for the jail in the face of civil lawsuits. That is, until this week.

It appears Gwinnett is trying to distance itself from both companies, according to a cross claim filed this week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The cross claim was filed against Taser International and Prison Health Services in the wrongful death lawsuit of a former county inmate, Frederick Jerome Williams.

The county now says one or both of those companies - not Gwinnett - should have to pay if monetary damages are awarded in the Williams case, especially if the judge finds Williams died because of improper medical care or Tasers.

The county's attorney, Bret Thrasher, declined to comment on pending litigation. Joan Crumpler, an attorney for the Williams family, said the filing of a cross claim is unusual.

"In these kind of cases the defendants are a united front in defense of the plaintiffs' action, particularly when you have current vendors operating inside the jail and current vendor situations with Tasers," Crumpler said. "Not so long ago they ordered more Tasers. It is unusual to attack that relationship."

The county's assertions about Prison Health Services' liability centers around their contract, which holds the Nashville-based company responsible in any lawsuits involving negligent or improper medical care.

The county also believes Taser International should be held accountable if a jury finds Williams' death was caused by one of its stun guns.

Surprisingly, the county bolstered its argument against Taser International by stating that the company misrepresented its product as being safe, without lasting effects and unconnected to any fatalities in all marketing and training materials. The cross claim says Taser International failed to tell the county it was uncertain of the effects of using the Taser in a drive-stun mode.

The Taser used in probe mode fires two probes tethered to the weapon by an insulated wire which delivers electrical shock, disrupting the nervous system and incapacitating the targeted subject. In drive-stun mode, the Taser is applied directly to the body of the subject like a stun gun, using pain to gain compliance from an inmate.

The court filing also points out that repeated or continued use of the Taser M26 upon a person could be harmful, something that was not initially disclosed by Taser International.

Sheriff Butch Conway, who has been a vocal supporter of the use of Tasers by his staff, said Thursday "my position on Tasers has not changed."

However, the county's cross claim states "Taser made representations to Gwinnett defendants regarding the Taser M26" when it "knew or should have known that the statements contained in its training, marketing and advertising materials were false."

The cross claim goes on to say that the Taser company's studies were biased because they were conducted by Taser-paid researchers instead of independent scientists. The studies cited by the company were also conducted using an older-model, less powerful stun gun, according to the court documents.

Crumpler said the county can't shirk responsibility for its vendors and employees.

"Everybody had a certain kind of duty to Mr. Williams, and everybody failed," Crumpler said. "I can't excuse these officers for what they did. They had no reason to fire a Taser under those circumstances. We can't excuse Taser either because they put a lethal weapon on the market and said it was nonlethal."

Williams, 31, died on May 27, 2004, following a confrontation with deputies at the Gwinnett County Detention Center in which he was stunned multiple times with a Taser. The Williams' family's lawsuit claims that deputies used excessive force and that the use of Tasers caused his death. It also claims that after Williams lost consciousness, medical staff at the jail failed to provide proper emergency medical treatment.

The lawsuit was first filed in Gwinnett County State Court, but the county filed a motion to move the case to federal court last week, Crumpler said.