After a story in which I revealed that TASER (Nasdaq: TASR ) had settled three cases previously thought to be victories because of misleading PR, I had hoped management would have learned its lesson. Call it wishful thinking on my part.
Hardly stunned by another head-fake
Last week, the stun-gun maker issued another stinker of a press release. This time, the subject was Ray Lynn Gray, a former deputy sheriff who claims to have been injured in an April 2004 training exercise. Gray filed suit against his former employers in Davis County, Utah, in November 2005, and then against TASER in June of this year.
Naturally, TASER management all but claimed victory in the case brought against it:
TASER International ... announced that the Second Judicial District Court for the State of Utah in and for the County of Davis entered an order dismissing the product liability lawsuit filed by Ray Lynn Gray against TASER International, Inc.
Too bad that's not the whole story. Rather than a court considering Gray's claim and finding it wanting, Gray voluntarily dismissed the order according to section 41(a)(1) of the Utah state rules for civil procedure.
Why is that important? Because by stating the court "entered an order," the press release insinuates that a judge at least heard arguments in Gray's case. In fact, no court was ever given the chance. A Davis County court clerk I spoke with confirmed that TASER never filed a response to Gray's suit. There were only two documents in the file: Gray's original complaint, filed in June, and his voluntary dismissal, filed on Oct. 26.
The non-denial denial
If, at this point, you're thinking that the dismissal was really a settlement disguised as a victory for PR purposes, I'm with you. Gray's attorney, Randall Edwards of Salt Lake City, isn't saying. But when asked whether the ruling would affect his case against Davis County, Edwards replied, "Absolutely not."
That's important, if only because, according to a CBS news report, Davis County alleges that Gray is faking his injuries. A convincing TASER victory over Gray would only serve to reinforce that conclusion. Yet Edwards says TASER has never been deposed in the Davis County case.
Back on the high horse
That's not to say TASER is experiencing unmanageable legal woes. Far from it. Over the past week alone, the stun-gun pioneer has scored three important, legitimate victories, including a summary judgment issued by a Louisiana district court on Friday.
Still, the release announcing that win is also troubling, thanks to the comments made within by CEO Rick Smith:
Our legal team delivered a grand slam this week, with four consecutive cases being dismissed. ... TASER International will vigorously defend these cases bringing world-class experts to bear, and doing what it takes to defend these cases through aggressive pre-trial motions as well as through trial when needed. TASER International will not be a profitable target for plaintiff attorneys looking for cost-of-defense settlements. Period." [Emphasis mine.]
If only that were true. We already know from an earlier earnings report that TASER sometimes settles cases for what it calls "nuisance value." I have little doubt that doing so is in shareholders' best interests. But I'm not at all convinced that coloring settlements and suspicious voluntary dismissals as victories is similarly beneficial.
Shock me when it's over
In fact, I believe it's incredibly detrimental. TASER is obfuscating the risks to its business every time it tries to put a happy face on its legal woes. That, in turn, makes it difficult to accurately value the shares. How does that serve shareholders, Rick?
Unfortunately, Smith didn't respond to my request for comment; TASER general counsel Doug Klint did. When asked why the release colored the dismissal as a victory, he said that a voluntary dismissal "is a victory in that it's one less lawsuit to deal with." He also denied that the release was an attempt to juice TASER's legal reputation, "If our objective was to boost our dismissals, then we could have announced three other dismissals in the past week." Klint says the other cases, resolved over the past two weeks, don't involve wrongful death or product liability.
So now TASER is acting conservatively? Color me skeptical, especially since we already know the company has followed a pattern of hiding product-liability settlements from investors. Indeed, the colder, harsher truth may be this: As much as unfair, hair-raising headlines and SEC investigations have butchered returns over the past two years, mismanagement must also be given its due.
So, please, TASER, stop spitting on your owners while insisting that it's raining. Tell them the truth instead. It's the least they deserve.
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Fool contributorTim Beyersis tired of trying to read between the lines when it comes to TASER PR. He doesn't believe that you, or he, should have to. Tim didn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out which stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis a rebel on Wall Street.