PG&E, owner of biggest U.S. power utility, files for bankruptcy

FILE PHOTO: PG&E crew work on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Power provider PG&E Corp filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, succumbing to liabilities stemming from wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018.

The owner of the biggest U.S. power utility has filed a motion seeking court approval for a $5.5 billion debtor-in-possession financing, it said in a statement.

PG&E listed assets of $71.39 billion and liabilities of $51.69 billion, in a court document filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California.

“Throughout this process, we are fully committed to enhancing our wildfire safety efforts, as well as helping restoration and rebuilding efforts across the communities impacted by the devastating Northern California wildfires,” PG&E interim Chief Executive Officer John Simon said.

The company said it intends to pay suppliers in full under normal terms for goods and services provided on or after the date of the Chapter 11 filing.

Separately, PG&E shareholder BlueMountain Capital Management LLC said it was “deeply disappointed” that the company’s board ignored calls from multiple parties to abandon its “reckless and irresponsible plan to file for bankruptcy.”

The investment firm said it would propose a slate of board directors no later than Feb. 21, and urged all PG&E stakeholders to support change at the company.

PG&E, which had a debt burden of more than $18 billion, said earlier this month it would need to pursue a court-supervised reorganization in the aftermath of the blazes, including November’s so-called Camp Fire.

The Camp Fire broke out on the morning of Nov. 8 near the mountain community of Paradise, sweeping through the town and killing at least 86 people, in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Reinsurance company Munich Re termed the Camp Fire as the world’s most expensive natural disaster of 2018 and earlier this month pegged the overall losses from it at $16.5 billion.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy once before in 2001, warned in November it could face “significant liability” in excess of its insurance coverage if its equipment was found to have caused the Camp Fire and other destructive wildfires.

Earlier this month, a state fire agency said PG&E equipment was not to blame for a 2017 wildfire in California’s wine country, but the company faces dozens of lawsuits from owners of homes and businesses that burned during that and other 2017 fires.

The San Francisco-based company provides electricity and natural gas to more than six million customers in Northern California. Last year, lawmakers gave it permission to raise rates to cover wildfire losses from 2017. But elected officials this month showed little appetite for new rate hikes or other maneuvers to prevent a bankruptcy filing.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Big claims strain senior living market for U.S. insurers

FILE PHOTO: A senior citizen, walks down the hallway with the aide of her walker to visit a neighbor at her independent living complex in Silver Spring, Maryland April 11, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – Last March, a 103-year-old resident of a Sunrise Senior Living facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, went on a field trip to the movies.  Ruth Smith, who used a walker, fell down two concrete steps in the theater and died about six weeks later. Now Smith’s estate is suing Sunrise, saying that aides did not properly watch her.

As the U.S. society ages, senior living communities are on the rise. So are claims and lawsuits against them. And when they lose, it is usually down to insurers to pay up.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity that has pretty specific challenges,” said Brendan Gallagher, who heads the senior care business at insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher Co.

Some senior living facilities could see insurance rate hikes in 2019 as high as 30 percent, according to insurance broker Willis Towers Watson.

Fewer insurers are offering coverage today than they were five years ago and some Lloyd’s of London members stopped writing the coverage during the past year, said John Atkinson, managing partner at Willis.

Some insurers are dropping coverage of those communities entirely while others are avoiding litigious locations such as Kentucky, Illinois and Florida, said insurers and brokers.

While the pullback threatens to raise costs for families, other insurers are expanding, betting on the industry’s strong growth prospects.

The number of people living in U.S. residential care facilities has grown by over 10 percent to 812,000 between 2010 and 2016, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the industry gears up for the arrival of the greying 74-million baby boom generation, senior living facilities have grown even faster. The number of rooms in those centers has risen up by a fifth since 2013, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), which collects data for the 99 largest U.S. metro areas.

While aging is a global phenomenon and the U.S. society is relatively younger than those in Europe and North Asia, its greater dependence on senior centers confronts it with challenges other nations may yet have to grapple with.

More so than previous U.S. generations, today’s elderly often live far away from their children. In Europe, seniors tend to live much closer to their relatives or in communities that provide generous government services for the elderly. In many Asian and African communities, multiple generations commonly live together.

Not only do more people move into retirement communities, but they tend to do it later than they used to, resulting in more frequent and severe injuries, insurance professionals say.

“People are living longer and they are frailer,” said Gloria Holland, vice president of finance at Capital Senior Living Corp, a Dallas-based company that runs 129 communities across the country.

A spokeswoman for Sunrise Assisted Living, where Smith lived, said the company had policies and procedures in place to help promote resident safety. “Anytime we lose a member of our community we are deeply saddened,” she said.

Falls are the biggest risk. Allegations of falls account for nearly half of all assisted living claims that insurer CNA Financial Group closed in 2016 and 2017, the company said.

Another source of insurance claims are “memory care” centers, which cater to people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of memory problems.

The nascent sector has grown 52 percent since 2013, according to NIC. A big issue there: residents who wander away.

Last year, the body of 77-year-old Audrey Penn was found in a ditch after she left a senior living community in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A lawsuit filed by her family settled for an undisclosed amount.


Capital Senior Living’s Holland said the average age of residents who moved to its facilities was between 78 and 80 when she joined the company in 2004 and has risen to between 82 to 84 by now. That makes individual claims more expensive to settle. The company anticipates a 5 percent rate increase when it renews its insurance in 2019, Holland said.

Higher rates and deductibles are more likely to affect smaller facilities, which may lack robust compliance programs for preventing accidents and other problems, insurers and brokers say. Smaller centers often “struggle to keep up with changing regulations,” said Caroline Clouser, who heads the healthcare industry practice at insurer Chubb Ltd.

Insurance premiums for senior facilities vary by state. Premiums for each assisted living apartment range from $150 to $600 annually, insurers and brokers say.

Insurance for those facilities makes up less than 1 percent of the $558 billion property and casualty insurers collected in net written premiums in 2017. Yet it is likely to grow as aging boomers fill up senior communities, industry insiders say.

Nationwide is among the companies that have been growing their senior living insurance business while being selective, said Jeremy Moore, senior living underwriting manager.

“You have to understand what the exposures are and the controls in place,” he said.

Nationwide has a team of former senior living executives and administrators who visit communities and look at everything from building maintenance to evacuation procedures, Moore said.

Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Company, which writes coverage for the industry in 49 states, is planning to expand into Florida, the remaining state, in 2019, according to Jim Ketterson, who heads the insurer’s senior living practice.

Brokers are also working to help senior living communities better manage their risk. Willis recently launched a program to help facilities learn how to more safely lift residents.

Willis also runs a webinar on active shooter events, including tips such using beds to block doors that do not lock, a common feature in memory care facilities.

Senior living companies also keep reviewing their facilities and procedures, they say. For example, Capital Senior Living is gradually replacing carpet flooring with laminate, which is less of a trip hazard, Holland said. It is also considering a technology that can help track residents’ movements to determine if they are at risk of a fall.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn. Editing by Neal Templin and Tomasz Janowski)

Trump questions 3-D gun sales as U.S. states sue

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the economy while delivering remarks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday raised concerns about the sale of plastic guns made with 3-D printers, a day after several U.S. states sued his administration to block the imminent online publication of designs to make the weapons.

Eight states and the District of Columbia on Monday filed a lawsuit to fight a June settlement between the federal government and Defense Distributed allowing the Texas-based company to legally publish its designs. Its downloadable plans are set to go online on Wednesday.

The legal wrangling is the latest fight over gun rights in the United States, where a series of mass shootings in recent years has re-ignited the long-simmering debate over access to firearms.

“I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” Trump said in a Twitter post that referred to the powerful National Rifle Association lobbying group. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

Representatives for the U.S. State Department, which signed off on the settlement allowing publication of the designs to go forward, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which also signed off on the settlement, said the issue was a matter for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a spokeswoman said.

NRA officials were not immediately available for comment.

The states are asking a U.S. judge to issue an injunction to block the online distribution of the gun blueprints. They say the U.S. government has failed to study the national and state security implications of the decision and violated states’ rights to regulate firearms.

Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, said the case was not about guns but instead about protecting the constitutional free speech rights of his client.

“I don’t care what President Trump says. I will be arguing to protect my client’s First Amendment rights,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Defense Distributed’s website said it would publish the files on Wednesday but blueprints for seven guns already were available for download on Tuesday. The company’s founder, self-declared anarchist Cody Wilson, told media outlets on Monday that the files went up late Friday evening.

Mark Kelly, who co-founded a gun reform group with his wife, former Democratic U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 shooting, criticized Trump for his tweet.

“He should go to the State Department, not the NRA,” he said.

Kelly said Trump should tell the department the blueprints should remain restricted under international arms trafficking regulations.

The states, in their filing on Monday, argued the online plans will give criminals easy access to weapons by circumventing traditional sales and regulations.

Gun rights groups have been largely dismissive of concerns about 3-D printable guns, saying the technology is expensive and the guns unreliable.

The gun plans were pulled from the internet in 2013 by order of the U.S. State Department under international gun trafficking laws. Wilson sued in 2015, claiming the order infringed his constitutional rights.

Until recently, the government argued the blueprints posed a national security risk. Gun control groups said there had been no explanation for the June settlement and the administration’s abrupt reversal on the issue.

Wilson said in an online video that the blueprints were downloaded more than 400,000 times before they were taken down in 2013.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tina Bellon in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Bill Trott)

TSA screeners win immunity from flier abuse claims: U.S. appeals court

FILE PHOTO: A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official's wears a TSA badge at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Fliers may have a tough time recovering damages for invasive screenings at U.S. airport security checkpoints, after a federal appeals court on Wednesday said screeners are immune from claims under a federal law governing assaults, false arrests and other abuses.

In a 2-1 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners are shielded by government sovereign immunity from liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act because they do not function as “investigative or law enforcement officers.”

The majority said it was “sympathetic” to concerns that its decision would leave fliers with “very limited legal redress” for alleged mistreatment by aggressive or overzealous screeners, which add to the ordinary stresses of air travel.

“For most people, TSA screenings are an unavoidable feature of flying,” but it is “squarely in the realm” of Congress to expand liability for abuses, Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote.

The decision, the first on the issue by a federal appeals court, was a defeat for Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Florida.

She and her husband had sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution over a July 2006 altercation at Philadelphia International Airport.

Pellegrino on Wednesday said she was reviewing the decision. A lawyer who helped with her appeal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to court papers, Pellegrino had been randomly selected for additional screening at the Philadelphia airport before boarding a US Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Pellegrino, then 57, objected to the invasiveness of the search, but conditions deteriorated and she was later jailed for about 18 hours, the papers show. Criminal charges were filed, and Pellegrino was acquitted at a March 2008 trial.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro dissented from Wednesday’s decision.

“By analogizing TSA searches to routine administrative inspections, my colleagues preclude victims of TSA abuses from obtaining any meaningful remedy for a variety of intentional tort claims,” he wrote.

Torts are civil wrongs that can result in damages.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia, whose office represented TSA officials, had no immediate comment.

The appeals court ruled 11 months after throwing out a First Amendment claim by an architect, Roger Vanderklok, who said he was arrested in retaliation for asking to file a complaint against an ill-tempered TSA supervisor.

The case is Pellegrino et al v U.S. Transportation Security Administration et al, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-3047.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

J&J Baby Powder litigation takes new focus with asbestos claims

FILE PHOTO: Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A $117 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson and a supplier in favor of a man who said his asbestos-related cancer was caused by long-term use of J&J’s Baby Powder could open a new front for thousands of cases claiming the widely-used product caused cancer, legal experts and plaintiffs lawyers said.

J&J has been battling some 6,000 cases claiming its baby powder and Shower to Shower products cause ovarian cancer. The $117 million verdict by a New Jersey jury last week, however, involved a different form of cancer that is clearly linked to asbestos.

Plaintiffs lawyers claim that internal J&J documents seen in that trial show that baby powder had been contaminated with asbestos. They now plan to use the documents in upcoming ovarian cancer trials to allege that the asbestos contamination also caused that form of cancer.

J&J and Imerys Talc America, a unit of Imerys SA, have vowed to appeal the New Jersey verdict and deny asbestos has ever been present in their products or that their talc can cause any form of cancer.

The case of Stephen Lanzo, a New Jersey resident who claimed he developed mesothelioma after using baby powder since his birth in 1972, was the first time a jury saw the internal J&J documents which plaintiffs claim show that J&J knew since the 1970s that the talc in its baby powder was contaminated by asbestos during the mining process.

J&J says the documents present no such evidence, but merely show the company’s caution.

Peter Bicks, a lawyer leading J&J’s talc asbestos defense, said that in the early 1970s, the company was looking at how it could potentially remove asbestos from talc if the two became intermingled in the mining process. He says no contamination was ever found, citing decades of testing by independent laboratories and scientists.

Bicks called the claims of a link between talc and asbestos “junk science.”

Mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer closely associated with exposure to asbestos, affects the delicate tissue that lines body cavities.

While the link between asbestos and mesothelioma is sufficiently established, scientists are divided on whether asbestos exposure can cause ovarian cancer. Some studies have shown an association between the two, while other studies have found no such link.

Elizabeth Burch, holder of the Charles H. Kirbo Chair of Law at the University of Georgia, said it remained an open question whether talc contained asbestos and that each case would turn on the facts.

But J&J, which had $76.5 billion in sales in 2017, gives the plaintiffs’ bar an enticing new target, said Nathan Schachtman, a lecturer at Columbia University who used to defend asbestos cases.

Some 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, according to the American Cancer Society, a number that Howard Erichson, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in mass tort litigation, called significant from a legal standpoint.

But the roughly 22,000 women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, according to the National Cancer Institute, provide lawyers with a potentially much larger pool of plaintiffs to tap.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Lanier, one of the lawyers representing consumers, who said plaintiffs would file thousands of additional mesothelioma and ovarian cancer cases.

New Jersey-based J&J in a statement after the Lanzo verdict said plaintiffs’ attorneys had shifted their strategy to focus on asbestos after a series of losses at trial and in court rulings over previous allegations that the talc itself causes cancer.

Of the six ovarian cancer trials to date, juries found J&J liable five times, but a Missouri appellate court threw out the first verdict and a California judge tossed another. Appeals of the other cases are pending.

J&J in November also won the first trial over allegations that its talc contained asbestos and caused a woman’s mesothelioma. Plaintiffs lawyers say the jury in that case did not see the documents presented during the Lanzo trial.

But Erichson said the widespread use of J&J’s consumer products generally make the company an attractive litigation target.

“Baby powder is as ubiquitous a product you can think of and there are lots of people who can testify they’ve been exposed to it,” he said.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Adler)

Arkansas sues opioid manufacturers for roles in epidemic

A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – Arkansas’ attorney general on Thursday joined the widening mass of litigation against opioid manufacturers, accusing three drugmakers of promoting addictive painkillers in ways that falsely denied or trivialized their risks.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a lawsuit in state court in Little Rock accusing Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson, Johnson and Endo International Plc of engaging in misleading marketing practices.

The case made Arkansas at least the 17th U.S. state to sue manufacturers of prescription opiods amid a nationwide epidemic of addiction to the painkillers.

The lawsuit contended the drugmakers spent millions of dollars on promotional activities that downplayed the risks of addiction associated with opioids while falsely touting the benefits of using the drugs to treat chronic pain.

“The reckless actions of these opioid manufacturers have wreaked havoc upon Arkansas and her citizens for far too long,” Rutledge said in a statement.

Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, denied the allegations in a statement while saying it is “deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis.”

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit – which manufactures drugs including the opioid Duragesic, a form of fentanyl – called its marketing activities “appropriate and responsible.” Endo did not respond to a request for comment.

Prescription opioids are intended to treat pain, but the outbreak of addiction to the drugs has led to a tsunami of lawsuits by cities and counties. The lawsuits have sought to recoup damages from drugmakers for their role in the epidemic.

Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 433 lawsuits are consolidated before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland, who has been pushing for a quick settlement and has invited state attorneys general with cases and probes not before him to participate in the talks.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers pursuing the case have generally not quantified the potential costs involved in the cases but have compared them with litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to 1998’s $246 billion settlement.

The U.S. Justice Department in a March 1 filing sought 30 days to evaluate participating in the litigation, citing the “substantial costs that the federal government has borne as a result of the opioid epidemic.”

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Starbucks coffee in California must have cancer warning, judge says

FILE PHOTO - A woman holds a Frappuccino at a Starbucks store inside the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX airport in Los Angeles, California, United States, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – Starbucks Corp and other coffee sellers must put a cancer warning on coffee sold in California, a Los Angeles judge has ruled, possibly exposing the companies to millions of dollars in fines.

A little-known not-for-profit group sued some 90 coffee retailers, including Starbucks, on grounds they were violating a California law requiring companies to warn consumers of chemicals in their products that could cause cancer.

One of those chemicals is acrylamide, a byproduct of roasting coffee beans that is present in high levels in brewed coffee.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said in a decision dated Wednesday that Starbucks and other companies had failed to show there was no significant risk from a carcinogen produced in the coffee roasting process, court documents showed.

Starbucks and other defendants have until April 10 to file objections to the decision.

Starbucks declined to comment, referring reporters to a statement by the National Coffee Association (NCA) that said the industry was considering an appeal and further legal actions.

“Cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading. The U.S. government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” the NCA statement said.

In his decision, Berle said: “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”

Officials from Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s Corp, Peet’s and other big coffee sellers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT). It calls for fines as large as $2,500 per person for every exposure to the chemical since 2002 at the defendants’ shops in California. Any civil penalties, which will be decided in a third phase of the trial, could be huge in California, which has a population of nearly 40 million.

CERT’s lawyer Raphael Metzger did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Starbucks lost the first phase of the trial in which it failed to show the level of acrylamide in coffee was below that which would pose a significant risk of cancer. In the second phase of the trial, defendants failed to prove there was an acceptable “alternative” risk level for the carcinogen, court documents showed.

Several defendants in the case settled before Wednesday’s decision, agreeing to post signage about the cancer-linked chemical and pay millions in fines, according to published reports.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Richard Chang and Leslie Adler)

Special Report: Why ‘higher risk’ human targets get shocked with Tasers

Taylor Wiggington sits with a photo of her father, Doug Wiggington, in the area where he was shocked by a Taser on May 12, 2017, in Greenfield, Indiana, U.S., December 21, 2017.

By Grant Smith, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Linda So and Lisa Girion

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The maker of the Taser says the electroshock weapon is the safest tool on a police officer’s belt – with a few caveats.

In pages of warnings, Axon Enterprise Inc advises police to beware that some people are at higher risk of death or serious injury from the weapons. Pregnant women. Young children. Old people. Frail people. People with heart conditions. People on drugs or alcohol. The list goes on.

Taken together, the tally of people particularly susceptible to harm from a Taser’s powerful shock covers nearly a third of the U.S. population, a Reuters analysis of demographic and health data found. Yet police have repeatedly used Tasers on people who fall into the very groups the company warns about.

Dailene Rosario was one of them. Last winter, a New York City police officer fired his Taser’s electrified barbs into the rib cage of Rosario, 17, as she screamed she was pregnant. Thanks to a viral video taken by a bystander, the world watched as Rosario, 14 weeks into her term, crumpled to the ground, wailing.

What happened afterward has not been told.

Rosario’s daughter Raileey survived. But the baby is not faring well. In September, Rosario said, the two-month-old was rushed to the hospital, struggling to breathe after developing tremors and coughing fits. Raileey spent nearly all of November at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, undergoing tests for a possible seizure disorder.

“Now it happens so frequently,” Rosario said of the tremors. “We can only just monitor her and try to keep her relaxed.”

Her lawyer, Scott Rynecki, said he plans to make the baby’s health a central issue in a $5 million legal claim she has filed against the New York Police Department. The NYPD said the incident remains under investigation and declined to comment further.

There’s no telling how often police use Tasers on pregnant women and the other “higher-risk populations” the manufacturer warns about: The stun guns are unregulated as police weapons, and there is no national tracking of their use.

Yet people in those groups account for more than half of the 1,028 cases identified by Reuters in which people died after being shocked by Tasers, often along with other force. Such people, Axon’s warnings say, should be targeted “only if the situation justifies an increased risk” of injury or death.

Particularly vexing for police is the difficulty of determining which potential Taser targets belong to population cohorts deemed to be at increased risk.

Some fatalities examined by Reuters involved people who obviously fell into a higher-risk category. Four, for instance, involved people over 75.

Yet many others involved vulnerabilities difficult to spot, particularly in the chaos of confrontation. Some 245 had a heart condition. And 643 people were drunk or high on drugs – a state often, but not always, easy to identify.

“People don’t walk around with signs” listing their medical conditions, said James Ginger, a former Evansville, Indiana, policeman now working as a consultant and court-appointed monitor of police compliance with judicial orders. The Taser is an important police tool, Ginger said. But if officers avoided anyone who potentially has a higher-risk condition, “you couldn’t use it.”

Axon calls Tasers the “safest force option available to law enforcement.”

The company told Reuters its warnings and training “do not identify any population group as ‘high risk,’ rather, they recognize that certain people may be at increased risk during encounters requiring force, regardless of the force option chosen.”

But the warnings issued to police by Axon, formerly known as Taser International Inc, note explicitly that “some individuals may be particularly susceptible to the effects” of its weapons. They identify an array of “higher-risk populations” and other vulnerable groups.

Law enforcement began embracing Tasers in the early 2000s. The manufacturer began listing higher-risk populations in 2009, when it also warned of possible cardiac effects from shocks to the chest. The list grew in the next few years.

Many in the police community say Tasers nevertheless offer a valuable option for controlling combative subjects without resorting to firearms. “There have been instances where we have saved a person’s life by using this piece of equipment,” said Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera. But as warnings on the weapons’ risks have evolved, he added, the department has “tightened up” on their use.

Axon’s warnings and guidelines are not binding on police departments, and while more than 90 percent of police agencies deploy Tasers, there are no universal standards for usage.

The uncertainty raises a challenge, some in law enforcement say. If large swaths of people are potentially at higher risk of death or serious injury from a Taser, how can police ever be sure the weapons are safe to use?

Nearly 80 percent of the population could fit into one of the higher risk groups identified by Taser’s maker, Reuters’ analysis shows. For example, any woman of childbearing age – about 20 percent of the population – could be pregnant. Any adult male could have impaired heart function, another third of the populace.

Police often have mere seconds to weigh such factors, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues, including use-of-force. As a result, he said, “the Taser may be the most complicated weapon that a police officer wears today.”


Michael Mears, 39, was found on the floor in a hallway at his Los Angeles apartment complex on Christmas Eve 2014, bloodied and crying: “Help me. Help me.”

The police called to help the disabled veteran shocked him repeatedly with a Taser.

Mears had a vulnerability the officers couldn’t see: an enlarged heart.

In 2009, the manufacturer introduced the possibility that Taser shocks could affect the heart. By Christmas 2014, it had warned that “serious complications could also arise in those with impaired heart function.”

That didn’t protect Mears, nor many others like him. Of the 750 Taser-involved deaths in which Reuters obtained autopsy information, 245 involved people with pre-existing heart problems. And of the 159 cases in which coroners ruled the Taser shock caused or contributed to the death, 68, or 43 percent, involved cardiac conditions.

Mears grew up in Florida and joined the Marines after high school. At 19, he helped evacuate United Nations troops from Somalia in 1995.

He injured his back in a shipboard fall two years later, said his mother, Joanna Wysocki. Surgery to repair his spine instead left him unable to walk. After years of rehabilitation, he had begun to walk again. But he often lost feeling in his weakened legs and needed a walker or wheelchair.

Wysocki said she talked to her son by phone the morning of his death, and he was excited about having friends over for Christmas Eve dinner. But that afternoon, he began acting strangely, court records show.

He rolled a candlestick across the floor as if he were throwing a grenade, and then ran out of the apartment. A neighbor peeked through a door and saw him lying on the floor, crying for help, she told detectives. Mears was covered in blood from rolling in shards of glass from a broken fire extinguisher case.

“He has PTSD,” a friend told the paramedics who arrived. Several LAPD officers followed. The first two hit Mears with pepper spray and batons because, the autopsy report said, he appeared combative.

The Taser’s log shows Mears was shocked six times totaling 53 seconds over three minutes. The longest: 32 seconds. Taser guidelines advise officers to avoid “repeated, prolonged or continuous” shocks, noting that safety testing typically involved no more than 15 seconds of exposure.

The officer who stunned Mears testified he believed he was applying 5-second shocks and had no idea his Taser delivered electricity for as long as he held the trigger. The LAPD declined to discuss the case or make the officer available for comment.

The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner ruled Mears’ death a homicide, concluding that cocaine and police efforts to restrain him, including the Taser shocks, were too much for his heart.

His parents sued the city. Jurors blamed the city for being “deliberately indifferent” to officer training and awarded them $5.5 million.

Mears died Christmas morning, while his mother was flying from Florida. “I’ll never get to say goodbye,” she said.


Sometimes, the vulnerabilities are more obvious.

There was no mistaking Stanley Downen was elderly when Columbia Falls police answered a call from the Montana Veterans’ Home for help with a wandering resident in June 2012. Downen, 77 with advanced Alzheimer’s, was just outside the gate, circled by several staffers urging him to come back inside.

A retired ironworker and Navy vet, Downen had scooped up landscaping rocks, one as big as a softball, and was threatening to throw them at anyone who came near. Officers Mike Johnson and Gary Stanberry approached, asking him to put down the rocks.

Downen cursed at the officers and said he wanted to go home.

They tried again; same response.

Johnson drew his Taser and fired. He later testified that Downen had reared back as if to throw one of the rocks. “I believed that I was going to be physically harmed.”

Paralyzed by the Taser’s electrified darts, Downen’s body seized and he fell forward, his head smacking the pavement. Handcuffed, he continued cursing and struggling.

Downen was taken to a nearby hospital, but his dementia worsened. He died there three weeks later.

Axon has warned since 2008 about using its weapons on “elderly” people and advises that doing so “could increase the risk of death or serious injury.” A model Taser policy from the Police Executive Research Forum includes similar warnings.

But neither designates an age threshold for “elderly,” and dozens of police department policies reviewed by Reuters specify no age limit.

Reuters identified 13 cases in which people 65 and older – the eligibility age for Medicare – died after being stunned by police with Tasers. All but two occurred well after the manufacturer’s first warnings.

By the time Columbia Falls police confronted Stanley Downen in 2012, the warnings had been in place for years. Officer Johnson later testified he never saw them.

In depositions and court records from a lawsuit filed by Tamara Downen, Stanley’s granddaughter, Johnson and the police department acknowledged he had not been trained or certified on Taser use since 2006 – two years before the manufacturer first warned against shocking the elderly. Officers are supposed to be re-trained and certified on the weapons annually, according to guidelines from the manufacturer and independent law enforcement groups.

The department also had no formal policy on Taser use, court records show, and its procedures manual never mentioned the weapon.

Tamara Downen sued the state-run nursing home and city police, alleging unsafe practices and improper Taser use in her grandfather’s death. “It just wasn’t right, what he went through,” she said. The city settled for $150,000; the state for $20,000.

Columbia Falls later hired a new police chief, Clint Peters. Citing the litigation, he declined to comment on the case or make the officers available for interviews. But he said the force now has a Taser policy based on guidelines from national law enforcement groups.


Axon has warned since 2005 that people agitated or intoxicated by drugs may face higher risks of medical consequences from Tasers’ electrical current. Data collected by Reuters underline that risk: More than 60 percent of 1,028 people who died in police confrontations involving Tasers were either drunk or on drugs.

Some who died were unmistakably intoxicated – like Doug Wiggington.

In Greenfield, Indiana, last May 12, Wiggington stumbled out of the local Elks Lodge just after 6 p.m., falling as he walked near a two-lane highway. James Fornoff, 74, called police. “He had no clue what he was doing,” Fornoff said.

When the first officer arrived at 6:27 p.m., Wiggington, 48, was lying in the grass, wiggling his feet, police dash-cam videos showed. “What have you taken?” Officer Dillon Silver asked.

As officer Rodney Vawter joined him, Silver rolled Wiggington onto his side, patting him down. Silver began to pull him onto his back but Wiggington stiffened. Silver grabbed his arm, saying, “Do not tense up on me.” Wiggington, 6 feet and 230 pounds, rolled onto his stomach.

“Tase him,” said Silver. Vawter pulled the trigger and the barbs struck Wiggington’s back. He writhed and grunted. “I’m going to do it again if you don’t listen!” Vawter said. The struggle continued. Vawter fired again.

When the officers turned him over, Wiggington was unconscious. They gave him two shots of Narcan, an overdose antidote for opioids, and started CPR. When the ambulance arrived, Wiggington had no pulse. Thirty minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

The autopsy said Wiggington died from “acute cocaine and methamphetamine intoxication.” The Taser was listed first among contributing factors.

“We have a lot of unanswered questions,” said Wiggington’s daughter, Brittany, 30, who has filed legal notice of her intent to sue the department.

By the time Wiggington was shocked, the company’s training materials had noted explicitly for years that Tasers cause “physiologic and/or metabolic effects that may increase the risk of death or serious injury” – and drug users “may be particularly susceptible.”

None of that language appeared in the Greenfield Police Department’s Taser policy at the time. The officer who shocked Wigginton, Vawter, hadn’t been re-certified on the Taser in more than three years.

Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche said the two officers did not violate department policy and were cleared by an internal investigation and a separate state probe. Axon, he added, does not explicitly bar using the weapon on people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but instead warns of the risks.

Rasche, chief since last January, said he had ordered his 42 officers to undergo a six-hour Taser re-certification class before the death. At the time of the incident, nine had completed it. Vawter wasn’t among them.

Since the death, Rasche has ordered all officers to undergo “crisis intervention training,” emphasizing de-escalation strategies in lieu of using force such as Tasers.

“We can’t just do the same thing we’ve been doing forever because it’s not working,” the chief said. “People are unfortunately dying and officers are having to use lethal force when they, you know, probably shouldn’t be.”


At any given time, 6 percent of women of childbearing age are pregnant. But, in the early stages, the signs of pregnancy are rarely obvious.

Since 2003, Axon has warned that pregnant women are at particular risk of injury from falls after being shocked. Still, the company suggested then that the weapons’ electrical charge posed no other special risks to women or fetuses. In 2004, it cited lab tests in which an electric charge was delivered to the abdomens of pregnant pigs with “no adverse effect on fetuses.”

In 2009, Axon identified pregnant women as a “higher risk population.” By 2011, news reports described nearly a dozen women who had suffered miscarriages or other pregnancy complications after stun-gun shocks.

Definitively measuring the risks of shocking a pregnant woman is impossible: There has never been a controlled study of the Taser’s effects on pregnant women. Such tests, by their nature, are too risky to undertake.

Yet since electricity is a known cardiac hazard, doctors theorize it poses some risk.

“There may be an instantaneous fetal effect when the Taser discharges, but you may not know about that until when he is a small child,” said Michael Cackovic, an obstetrician who heads the maternal cardiac disease program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Cackovic said risks from a Taser shock include disrupting the flow of oxygen from the mother, potential fatal cardiac arrhythmia, damage affecting the brain and other problems that may emerge years after birth.

No government authorities track miscarriages or other problems linked to pregnant women stunned by Tasers. A Reuters review of court filings and news articles found 19 incidents of women stunned while pregnant, at least 11 of which were followed by a miscarriage, since 2001.

One such case played out on a hot August morning in Lima, Ohio, in 2016. Brittany Osberry, 24, stumbled into a crime scene as she pulled into her friend’s driveway to pick up her nieces and nephews. Police were monitoring the home because they mistakenly thought a suspect in a shooting may be inside. Within seconds, three officers swarmed her car.

“You need to leave!” officer Mark Frysinger shouted, gun drawn, the altercation captured on a neighbor’s cellphone. “This is a crime scene.”

When she asked why, Frysinger accused her of disorderly conduct and told her to leave again. She protested: She wanted first to pick up the children. The officers moved in. “Show me your hands,” Frysinger yelled, pulling her from the car. Three officers pushed her up against the door.

“You all better know I’m pregnant,” she shouted. “You all better know that.”

One officer put her in a choke-hold and lifted the 104-pound woman back so high the tips of her toes touched the driveway. Another officer, Zane Slusher, drove a Taser into her abdomen. “Oh my God!” she screamed.

In an incident report, police said Osberry was combative and struck an officer – assertions a federal judge said were “not conclusively” borne out by the video. Osberry was arrested for obstructing official business, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and assault. The charges were later dismissed. No official reason was given.

Within hours, she said, she felt stomach cramps. A month later, ultrasounds couldn’t detect the baby’s heartbeat. Other tests found a beating heart, but her doctors identified another problem: Osberry was suffering from preeclampsia, a dangerous spike in blood pressure during pregnancy that can interfere with blood flow to the placenta and fetus.

She underwent tests twice a week. The fetus wasn’t gaining weight.

Then, that New Year’s Eve, with Osberry 30 weeks pregnant, her doctor said the baby was coming. Contractions began and the baby’s heartbeat plunged, she said. On the way to the hospital, she wept, “not knowing if I would lose him.”

Kannon was born at 2 pounds, 2 ounces and stayed at the hospital nearly two months. Today, he’s generally healthy but struggles to use his left leg; doctors aren’t sure if he’ll face long-term developmental problems.

In February, Osberry filed suit against Lima Police and the officers involved. The department said it had “probable cause” to arrest her and cited “qualified immunity,” a concept providing legal protection to officers unless police violate “clearly established’’ legal principles.

In November, a federal judge rejected the department’s attempt to have the case dismissed. Lima Police have appealed the ruling.

“Given the factual allegations, I am hard-pressed to imagine a scenario less deserving of qualified immunity,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Carr. A “reasonable officer,” he said, should know not to use a Taser on a “non-resisting pregnant woman.”

(Reported by Grant Smith, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Linda So and Lisa Girion. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Apple apologizes after outcry over slowed iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook stands in front of a screen displaying the IPhone 6 during a presentation at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California October 16, 2014.

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) – Facing lawsuits and consumer outrage after it said it slowed older iPhones with flagging batteries, Apple Inc is slashing prices for battery replacements and will change its software to show users whether their phone battery is good.

In a posting on its website Thursday, Apple apologized over its handling of the battery issue and said it would make a number of changes for customers “to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions.”

Apple made the move to address concerns about the quality and durability of its products at a time when it is charging $999 for its newest flagship model, the iPhone X.

The company said it would cut the price of an out-of-warranty battery replacement from $79 to $29 for an iPhone 6 or later, starting next month. The company also will update its iOS operating system to let users see whether their battery is in poor health and is affecting the phone’s performance.

“We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down,” Apple said in its posting. “We apologize.”

On Dec. 20, Apple acknowledged that iPhone software has the effect of slowing down some phones with battery problems. Apple said the problem was that aging lithium batteries delivered power unevenly, which could cause iPhones to shutdown unexpectedly to protect the delicate circuits inside.

That disclosure played on a common belief among consumers that Apple purposely slows down older phones to encourage customers to buy newer iPhone models. While no credible evidence has ever emerged that Apple engaged in such conduct, the battery disclosure struck a nerve on social media and elsewhere.

Apple on Thursday denied that it has ever done anything to intentionally shorten the life of a product.

At least eight lawsuits have been filed in California, New York and Illinois alleging that the company defrauded users by slowing devices down without warning them. The company also faces a legal complaint in France, where so-called “planned obsolesce” is against the law.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Apple faces lawsuits after saying it slows down aging iPhones

A salesman checks a customer's iPhone at a mobile phone store in New Delhi, India, July 27, 2016.

By Paresh Dave

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Apple Inc. defrauded iPhone users by slowing devices without warning to compensate for poor battery performance, according to eight lawsuits filed in various federal courts in the week since the company opened up about the year-old software change.

The tweak may have led iPhone owners to misguided attempts to resolve issues over the last year, the lawsuits contend.

All the lawsuits – filed in U.S. District Courts in California, New York and Illinois – seek class-action to represent potentially millions of iPhone owners nationwide.

A similar case was lodged in an Israeli court on Monday, the newspaper Haaretz reported.

Apple did not respond to an email seeking comment on the filings.

The company acknowledged last week for the first time in detail that operating system updates released since “last year” for the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, iPhone SE and iPhone 7 included a feature “to smooth out” power supply from batteries that are cold, old or low on charge.

Phones without the adjustment would shut down abruptly because of a precaution designed to prevent components from getting fried, Apple said.

The disclosure followed a Dec. 18 analysis by Primate Labs, which develops an iPhone performance measuring app, that identified blips in processing speed and concluded that a software change had to be behind them.

One of the lawsuits, filed Thursday in San Francisco, said that “the batteries’ inability to handle the demand created by processor speeds” without the software patch was a defect.

“Rather than curing the battery defect by providing a free battery replacement for all affected iPhones, Apple sought to mask the battery defect,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiff in that case is represented by attorney Jeffrey Fazio, who represented plaintiffs in a $53-million settlement with Apple in 2013 over its handling of iPhone warranty claims.

The problem now seen is that users over the last year could have blamed an aging computer processor for app crashes and sluggish performance – and chose to buy a new phone – when the true cause may have been a weak battery that could have been replaced for a fraction of the cost, some of the lawsuits state.

“If it turns out that consumers would have replaced their battery instead of buying new iPhones had they known the true nature of Apple’s upgrades, you might start to have a better case for some sort of misrepresentation or fraud,” said Rory Van Loo, a Boston University professor specializing in consumer technology law.

But Chris Hoofnagle, faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, said in an email that Apple may not have done wrong.

“We still haven’t come to consumer protection norms” around aging products, Hoofnagle said. Pointing to a device with a security flaw as an example, he said, “the ethical approach could include degrading or even disabling functionality.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages in addition to, in some cases, reimbursement. A couple of the complaints seek court orders barring Apple from throttling iPhone computer speeds or requiring notification in future instances.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Leslie Adler)