The federal judge in the Heston case has ordered Taser International to pay $1.4 million to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

In a decision posted last Friday Judge James Ware awarded Peter Williamson and John Burton $1.4 million in fees. Referring to Heston as “an extraordinary case,” Judge Ware said the attorneys have provided “a significant benefit to the public” in securing a jury verdict against Taser.

In December 2008, CIR and California Lawyer magazine profiled Heston, a lawsuit brought by the family of Robert C. Heston, a Salinas, Calif. man who died after multiple Taser shocks by police. The jury found Taser International partly responsible for his death and initially awarded the family $6.2 million in damages (the amount was eventually reduced to $153,000). It’s the only time Taser International has been found legally liable for a death.

Here’s part of Judge Ware’s explanation for awarding attorneys fees:

The use of Tasers by police departments has become increasingly widespread. Their growing prevalence as a law enforcement weapon makes the warnings given about their use an issue of significant societal importance. Thus, the issue of whether Defendant TASER owes a duty to warn police about the risks of cardiac arrest under certain circumstances concerns an important right affecting the public interest. Here, Plaintiffs directly affected a public interest because their lawsuit alleged that Defendant TASER breached a duty to warn police departments about certain risks associated with metabolic acidosis and prolonged exposure to electric shock from Tasers. Ultimately, Plaintiffs were successful in proving that Defendant TASER’s negligent failure to warn Salinas police officers that prolonged application of electric current from Tasers increased the risk of death from metabolic acidosis, in part, resulting in the unintended death of Robert C. Heston.

Here, as discussed at trial, Defendant TASER markets its products as an effective non-lethal tool for law enforcement. Indeed, Defendant TASER highlights the non-lethal nature of its Tasers when used under a variety of circumstances, including multiple or prolonged deployments. From the evidence in this case, the jury found that TASER’s [stun gun] is likely to be dangerous where “prolonged exposure to electric shock from the device potentially causes acidosis to a degree which poses a risk of cardiac arrest in a person against whom the device is deployed,” and that Defendant TASER’s failure to warn of such a risk “was a substantial factor in causing the officers to use the device in such a way.” In support of their motion, Plaintiffs provide evidence that, as a result of this verdict, law enforcement officials all over the world are re-considering and potentially reforming their usage and training policies for Tasers.

The notoriety of Plaintiffs’ first-of-its-kind verdict, in some circumstances, has prompted a number of TASER customers and prospective customers to consider the risk of repeated and prolonged Taser electric charges on individuals in an excited or delirious state. Additionally, while Defendant TASER has yet to adopt a warning addressing the risks of metabolic acidosis, Plaintiffs insist that it will eventually address the risk of acidosis in its training policies and warnings. Defendant TASER contends that Plaintiffs have not caused any changes to its policies because it adopted warnings concerning prolonged exposure to TASER electrical charges before the initiation of Plaintiffs’ suit. However, the warnings provided by Defendant TASER concern “strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration,” and recommend avoiding prolonged or extensive multiple discharges “to minimize the potential for over-exertion of the subject or potential impairment of full ability to breathe over a protracted time period.” Such warnings do not address the obligation Defendant TASER owed Robert C. Heston to warn police about the risk of causing metabolic acidosis to the point of cardiac arrest.

Burton and Williamson originally requested $1.6 million, plus up to an additional $2.8 million in consideration of their unprecedented win against the stun-gun maker.

Shahien Nasiripour

Shahien joined CIR in 2008 and covers the federal judiciary. His work at CIR has been published by Truthdig, California Lawyer magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. Previously, he worked as a researcher for ESPN and as a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Providence Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California.