Zarla Ludin

January 31, 2009

madera city vs. taser international

Filed under: Uncategorized — Zarlashtah @ 7:05 pm

I came across this case today and thought I would share it with you all, and maybe get some thoughts.

In 2003, a Madera, CA officer–Marcie Noriega–shot and mortally wounded Everardo Torres, a suspect who, after being seized by officers, was attempting to kick out the cop car windows.  Noriega reached for her M26 Taser in an attempt to stun Torres, but instead grabbed her Glock and shot Torres once in the chest, killing him.  Torres’ family then filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Madera City, which prompted another lawsuit against Taser Internationl (the makers of the M26 Taser).

Taser International was sued for designing the M26 to look too similar to a standard issue weapon (the Glock), and for not training officers to holster the Taser on the opposite hip of the gun holster.  Madera City lost the lawsuit, despite these claims.

As someone interested in user-centered design, I decided to explore how Taser International could have won this case, despite Noriega’s partner claiming that she was in fact intending to reach for her M26, that the design of the M26 is explicitly meant to have the look and feel of a Glock, and that Madera officers did not receive training advising them to holster the Taser on the opposite hip.

First of all, the design of the Taser is very similar to the Glock.  The M26 has a similar size and weight to the Glock, and both weapons have a laser pointer to help aim.  Therefore one of Madera City’s claims against Taser International was that the design of the M26 was negligent.  Taser International countered this claim stating that “A product is not negligently designed so long as ‘the manufacturer took reasonable precautions in an attempt to design a safe product or otherwise acted as a reasonably prudent manufacturer would have under the circumstances'” (Torres vs. Taser International).

In fact, it seems as though Taser International had conducted some user research:

Here, the only evidence regarding Taser’s decision-making process on the M26’sdesign is that it developed a variety of different prototypes for the M26, presented these prototypes at “one of the largest training conferences of police . . . officers in the country,” determined that the handgun-shaped design “was significantly better in terms of accuracy” than the other prototypes, and received “overwhelming feedback” from training officers that they preferred the handgun-shaped design to the others (Torres vs. Taser International).

In Human Factors classes I have learned that user preferences are trumped by issues of safety.  Designing the M26 to have a similar look, feel, and attribute as a Glock was negligent, in my opinion.  I wonder if Taser International conducted any other kinds of rigorous testing that would have made designers realize that the user preference of having a Glock-shaped Taser should not have been considered.

Another claim Madera City made against Taser International, was the lack of training.  With training, they claim, Noriega would have been advised by experts to holster her Glock and Taser on opposite hips, potentially reducing the amount of misfires.  Noriega however had accidentally drew her Glock instead of her Taser in an incident prior to Torres’ death, brought her worries to her supervisor, who then, perhaps, advised her to holster the Taser on the opposite hip.  Because of this, Taser International claims, proper training would have been moot as Noriega was already aware of the solution to her error.

If we, as user-centered design folks, believe that human error is never really human error when design is involved (it’s always design error), can we agree with the verdict of the Madera City vs. Taser International verdict?


  1. The pistol grip is a common and arguably necessary human factors based design for easy grabbing (afordance for grabbing and holding).

    The brake pedal and the gas pedal on a car are quite similar as well.

    The target of the suit should have been the police department, for their lack of protocol (location to mount) and training, surrounding leathal and non leathal projectile weapons.

    If the officer was also issued a BB gun that felt / looked like a glock, without training, and mounted near their glock, you wouldn’t sue the BB gun manufacturer, you would sue the people making the armament and mounting decisions: the police department.

    Comment by dug — February 1, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  2. Nice to meet you, introduction?

    With regard to affordances: In the legal records I read, there wasn’t any mention of the exact research that was conducted to determine the taser’s design, other than user preference–my comments and inferences were based solely on what I read. One could argue that there are other designs that afford holding, and fast retrieval that are not the same look and feel as a glock. Assuming the designers were good designers, I hope the human factors specialist at a weapon’s development company, who is aware that this weapon will be holstered on the same person as a lethal weapon, would conduct further research into these particular affordances, and weigh the pros and cons of making it feel exactly like a glock.

    The gas/brake pedals: They are indeed similar, but to minimize the error of accidentally stepping on one or the other, we are taught to drive with one foot, so that we can easily distinguish between the two by controlling our access to these two pedals. In addition, the pedals are oriented in different directions, however the taser was not given even a single distinguishing characteristic.

    The target of the original suit (Torres vs. Madera Police Department) was thrown out simply because of this: the other officer with Noriega stated that Noriega’s intention was to shock the victim, not to use a weapon that would kill him. Therefore, the Torres family was (I am guessing advised, since they hired Johnnie Cochrane) to pursue a lawsuit against the taser company.

    With regard to a BB gun: I personally don’t know of police departments/precincts that holster BB guns in addition to a glock.

    With regard to the armament and mounting decisions: this was the element that eventually brought the case against Taser International down. The plaintiff said that Madera Police Department was ill-trained by Taser International on where to holster the gun. However, Noriega had complained earlier to her superior that she was frequently having issues distinguishing between her glock and taser. I am not sure if her sergeant advised her to holster the taser on the opposite hip, but basically the judge said “well, Noriega was aware of this, and therefore Taser International is not responsible.”

    Comment by Zarlashtah — February 2, 2009 @ 3:04 am

  3. Zarla,

    Very cool case. There are a lot of interesting things going on there. On the one hand, safety does trump user preference (inasmuch as it would first have to be a user requirement recognized by stakeholders or proactively determined by HF people). Safety here being probably one of the key user requirements beyond accuracy and overall ease of use (firing, carrying, unholstering, etc.).

    On the other hand, it is true that the affordances of gripping and holding are what led the designers of both guns and tasers to the same type of design. It is possible that there is another shape that is easy to grip, but one would that think that that other shape would have caught on with guns or other handheld tools on a large scale by now. Some designs are old enough that they are evolutionary and perfected within reason (hammer, etc.). So, if you took the general handgun shape to be the most usable for a taser as well, the only features left to modify for the sake of safety are the color, size, weight, texture, etc. It’s unlikely that any of these features would distinguish the taser from a gun as well as a differentiated shape would, for reasons that I only really understand in the case of color (because you wouldn’t stop to look down at your holster in a typical scenario). This is where the differently holstered solution might be handy, but again you run into human factors problems: why would someone right-handed holster something on the left? These are modern police, not actors in a spaghetti western.

    Speaking of scenarios, it’s possible that the end users are so fraught with anxiety in the working memory, that in a dangerous situation it would be nearly impossible to distinguish between similar weapons holstered similarly. Is it possible that, in a heightened state of anxiety, a person would instinctively (subconsciously) draw the lethal weapon rather than the non-lethal, even if it’s not a distinctly lethal situation? Is it possible to design for this?

    And on that note, it must be incredibly difficult to validate designs for this sort of product with realistic testing. It would be unethical to create the kind of dangerous, anxiety-producing situation that would be necessary to accurately test the safety and accuracy of a taser that is to be used alongside a gun. Anything less than immediate threat of harm would not be an accurate scenario. In this case, is usability enough, and safety left to version 2.0 after the product has gone live?

    I should think not, but then that’s why this is so interesting. With respect for the gravity of the topic, this was a great read. ~vb

    Comment by vbattaglia — February 2, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  4. Thanks V,

    I thought it would raise some interesting issues–and teach me a little something. I suppose if Taser really wanted to think outside the box they would have made their M26’s non-holstered weapons altogether. I think you are right to some extent that the pistol shape is a conventional look and feel of an item that is quick to grab, but I also think the handle of a tea kettle also affords the same thing, of course not out of a holster. Either way, Taser won that case, but recently lost one–not for design issues. I just hope this case raised some interesting issues in the police force world/weapon’s development world.

    Comment by Zarlashtah — February 2, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  5. Too bad Johnnie C. died before this case was brought to Justice!

    Comment by heather — March 23, 2012 @ 12:46 am

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