Teen who nearly died files suit against Taser and Independence police

Dashcam video shows excessive force arrest by Independence police

A federal judge released the police dash cam video of the Sept.14, 2014, arrest of 17-year-old Bryce Masters. This is an excerpt of that video that shows Independence police officer Timothy Runnels using a stun gun on Masters, handcuffin
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A federal judge released the police dash cam video of the Sept.14, 2014, arrest of 17-year-old Bryce Masters. This is an excerpt of that video that shows Independence police officer Timothy Runnels using a stun gun on Masters, handcuffin

A Kansas City teenager who went into cardiac arrest after being shot in the chest with a Taser by an Independence police officer has filed a federal suit against the manufacturer and the department.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City says Taser International marketed a “defective, unreasonably dangerous” product and misled their customers about the safety risks involved in its use.

Bryce Masters was 17 in September 2014 and nearly died after he was shot in the chest by the Taser. He suffered a brain injury that continues to affect his memory and cognitive abilities, according to the suit.

A spokesman for the Independence Police Department said Tuesday that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

A representative for Taser International also said the company does not comment on litigation that is pending.

The company’s website said Tasers “have helped dramatically reduce injuries among officers and their suspects” since their introduction in 1994. The site said the devices have prevented serious injuries to or saved the lives of more than 170,000 people and that “numerous independent studies” have concluded they are generally safe and effective. One study showed that 99.75 percent of 1,201 people who were stunned weren’t injured or were only bruised and scraped.

The 2014 incident began when Masters was pulled over on a traffic stop by Independence Police Officer Timothy Runnels.

Runnels was subsequently prosecuted in federal court and sentenced to serve four years in prison for violating Masters’ civil rights.

Runnels was a former Kansas City police officer who had been “compelled” to resign because of “poor judgment and temperament,” according to the suit.

Kansas City police commanders determined that he was “not eligible for rehire.” Even so, he was hired by Independence police. That department failed to exercise “due diligence” by not contacting Kansas City police, who, according to the suit, would have said he should not be hired as a police officer.

The incident involving Masters was captured on Runnels’ patrol car’s video camera and showed that after Masters refused to follow Runnels’ order to get out of the vehicle, the officer deployed the Taser.

The prongs that conduct the weapon’s electrical charge struck Masters in the chest, according to the suit and prior court testimony.

Masters then stepped out of the car and lay facedown on the pavement. He could be heard screaming and moaning.

The officer held the trigger for at least 20 seconds before releasing it. He handcuffed Masters, who by then was unresponsive.

Runnels then picked up Masters by his arms, dragged him out of the street, then dropped him face first onto a concrete driveway.

He radioed dispatchers and said they could order an ambulance. A police sergeant arrived on the scene and told dispatchers to send the ambulance as an emergency.

By the time medical responders arrived, Masters had been in cardiac arrest for more than seven minutes without CPR, the suit says.

He had turned blue, and CPR was begun. A defibrillator was used on Masters before he was taken to a hospital.

Medical staff there cooled down his body to minimize brain injury, and, according to the suit, “remarkably, he survived, regained consciousness, and began the slow, painful recovery that continues to this day.”

“He lives not only with memory deficiencies and other cognitive impairments, he has post-traumatic stress, extreme anxiety, and severe insomnia that makes interpersonal relationships challenging and difficult to an extent that they were not before his anoxic brain injury,” the suit states.

Prior to Masters’ near-fatal experience, Taser International had ample warning that the model of Taser used by Runnels could cause the kind of harm experienced by Masters, according to the suit.

Despite that, the company “showed complete indifference to and conscious disregard for the safety of others,” the suit says.

Police agencies who buy Taser products, such as the X26 model used by Runnels, receive regular training bulletins, product warnings and operating manuals.

Agencies like the Independence Police Department rely on the company to provide “accurate, up-to-date information.”

But, according to the suit, the arrangement creates a conflict of interest for the company.

In order to increase its revenues, it encourages use of the product “in part by minimizing risks and exaggerating the X26’s effectiveness,” according to the suit.

“At the same time Taser uses ‘fine print’ with vague, ambiguous and sometimes conflicting warnings and instructions as part of a conscious risk-management strategy to shift liability arising from cardiac arrests from Taser to agencies, such as the IPD (Independence Police Department), and to end users, such as Runnels,” the suit says.

Soon after the company began providing the X26 model to police departments in 2003, there were reports of people experiencing cardiac arrest after being struck near the heart.

The suit argues the company did not properly test or evaluate the risk of cardiac arrest caused by that model’s deployment before selling it.

The first report of such an incident to appear in a major medical journal was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005.

That case involved a 14-year-old boy in Chicago who also ended up suffering a brain injury, according to the suit, and Taser allegedly attempted to discredit the report.

“They fabricated a false explanation ... falsely attributing the cardiac arrest to a bogus ‘excited delirium’ diagnosis that had no basis in the records in the case,” the suit says.

That same year, Taser funded medical experiments on pigs that allegedly showed that when the device is deployed in the chest near the heart it could potentially trigger cardiac arrest.

The doctors who conducted that testing reported that directing the devices to other areas of the body away from the heart “would markedly increase the safety margins,” according to the suit.

A number of other independent tests were carried out.

“They provided powerful confirmation that Taser discharges to the chest significantly increase the risk of cardiac arrest, especially when the exposure exceeds five seconds,” the suit says.

Despite those studies, the suit said Taser failed to modify the design of the X26 or change its warning and training material.

Not until 2009 did the company modify its training information, though it still described the risk of an “adverse cardiac event” as “extremely low.”

Its new targeting guide recommended that the point of aim in shots to the front be lowered from the chest area.

The suit maintains that those revised directions created an “uproar” among Taser customers because the company had been “so adamant for so long that chest shots were cardiac safe.”

The company then explained that the revision was not done for safety reasons but as a way to reduce risk for law enforcement agencies, according to the suit.

During a 2009 conference call, company CEO Patrick “Rick” Smith said that chest shots with a Taser were not dangerous.

The company’s medical director said that “the risk of an adverse cardiac event from a chest shot could be rounded to zero.”

The suit says Taser knew that was false and was already facing multiple lawsuits at the time.

Taser revised the warnings again in 2013 to acknowledge that shots to the chest could trigger cardiac arrest in “rare circumstances.”

However, Masters’ attorneys say in their suit that the warnings did not convey the urgency necessary to change the behavior of Taser users who had been “lulled into a false sense of complacency.”

The suit seeks an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc