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bullet  Lessons from a Strange Death

Odd deaths are a staple story type in True, sometimes as a cautionary tale about what not to do, and sometimes as a way to point out how horribly we can treat others. There has been an update in a 2007 "weird death" story.

Thanks to reader Gail in California who sent me the update. Unfortunately, I read it while I was in the middle of writing this week's stories, and it occupied my mind so much that I had to get this update out before I could go back to writing. Yeah, sometimes the deaths make me angry, and sometimes — like in this case — it's the reactions and even "justifications" for the deaths that really get me going.

As usual, let's start first with my version of the story, which also happens to be one of many in my "freak of nomenclature" line, thanks to the victim's oddly appropriate name. It's from True's 14 January 2007 issue:

Strange Way to Die

Jennifer Lea Strange, 28, was found dead in her home in Rancho Cordova, Calif., after competing in a contest on a local radio station called "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" — with the prize being a Wii video game console to the person who drank the most water without peeing. The coroner's preliminary findings are her death is due to water intoxication, which occurs when someone drinks excessive water over a short time period. The contest was held by station KDND in Sacramento, which promotes itself as "The End". (Sacramento Bee) ...No doubt it was billed as "Another killer promotion!"

There was such a reaction from readers that I thought I should share more information about the case, which I did in the next issue:

During the radio station contest where Jennifer Lea Strange died from water intoxication, a nurse called the radio station to warn them that what they were doing was extremely dangerous. One DJ said he was even aware of such a case that ended in death, and another shrugged it off: "Yeah. They signed releases, so we're not responsible." (Sure: that'll keep her alive!) The radio station has fired ten people over the incident, including the DJs, and — sure enough — the family is filing a lawsuit over it all. (One headline I saw: "Strange Family To File Wrongful Death Lawsuit"!) That's not the station's only worry: the county sheriff has opened a homicide investigation. And no, Ms. Strange didn't even win the contest, which she entered so she could get the game console for her three kids.

I haven't seen anything about homicide charges, but nearly three years later, the lawsuit has reached its conclusion.

During the case, a tape of the stunt was played to the jury. It not only included a caller warning that such stunts were very dangerous, but also the DJ admitting he knew of the case of Matthew Carrington, a 21-year-old student at California State University, Chico, who died from water intoxication during a Chi Tau fraternity hazing incident in 2005. Chico is about 85 miles north of Sacramento. A member of his fraternity pleaded guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor hazing; two others pleaded guilty to being accessories to manslaughter and hazing; a fourth pleaded guilty to hazing. The case led to Matt's Law in California, which boosted such severe hazing cases to Penal Code felonies, rather than Education Code misdemeanors.

KDND logoThe Strange's lawyers asked for $34 million from KDND's owners, Entercom Sacramento LLC, and its corporate parent, Entercom Communications Corp. of Boston. The station denied negligence. But even when they discovered the station knew the dangers of the stunt, the jury wasn't completely sympathetic. They held Strange herself was not negligent in her own death, and the radio station was; but rather than $34 million, Billy Strange and the couple's three children were awarded $16,577,118.

Entercom said they would not appeal. "Jennifer Strange's death was a tragedy," said spokesman Charles Sipkins. "Our hearts go out to all of her loved ones, including, in particular, her husband and children. While legal restrictions preclude us from commenting further on the verdict, we respect the jury's decision and hope that it will assist the Strange family in coping with its loss."

Jennifer StrangeStrange had drunk about two gallons of water, by the way. She came in second, behind Lucy Davidson. Strange was a "selfless" woman who was "totally devoted to her babies," said friend and co-worker Tracy Beam. "She had her hands in anything that had to do with humanitarian activities, diseases, save the Earth or children. I called her a modern day Mother Teresa. Everything was about what she could do for somebody else."

"She didn't have any idea of the health factors," Beam said. "She didn't know the extent of what that kind of thing can do to you." But here's what water intoxication — or hyponatremia — can do: the excess water flushes too much sodium out of the bloodstream (hypo — too little, Natrium — Latin for sodium; thus, too little sodium in the blood), and the body can't balance its chemistry. Overwhelmed with water, the organs start to swell, and the heart's electrical system is compromised by the electrolyte imbalance, and the heart can race wildly — or stop altogether. Even if that doesn't happen, the victim's brain can suffer from an incorrectable lesion (central pontine myelinolysis). Neither is pretty. It's unclear what mechanism killed Strange, but before she left the radio station she could be heard saying on-air that she had a terrible headache; she then ran to the bathroom to vomit, followed closely by Davidson.

In a guest editorial in the Sacramento Bee, Bruce Maiman, a former DJ from another station in the Sacramento area, admitted he has run similar contests for years, and notes other contestants in the Strange case "sought financial restitution and got it, as if to jump on a tragedy just for a quick payday." Gee, Bruce: isn't that the exact sort of person that goes for such stunt-themed contests in the first place?!

He even admits "People do stupid things all the time. It's unavoidable. But when given a platform to act stupidly, it creates an opportunity for others to act in poor judgment." Yep: it's one thing that there are stupid people out there doing stupid things on their own. It's another to invite them to come down to do stupid and life-threatening things live on the air in order to entertain others for ratings. Yet that's what such radio stations are doing, and they've been doing it for years.

Maiman continues: "We can ask the rhetorical question, 'How do you live with yourself?' Apparently we can, because we keep tuning in." Speak for yourself, Bruce. He goes on: "It seems to me that if you can enjoy somebody in pain, somebody being humiliated, somebody making a fool of themselves, I'm not sure you've got all the genes necessary or all the cells necessary in the brain to appreciate the fact something terrible has happened even when it happens." Yet, again, Maiman himself admits he has run water-drinking contests. So how do you live yourself, Bruce? "Blame isn't equal," he admits, "but nobody's hands are clean here."

Well, nobody who runs the contests or listens in, anyway. Anyone who refuses to play along can sleep plenty well at night.

But I'm with him when he says he's "saddened that Entercom Communications... chose to fight this matter in court rather than admit its degree of culpability and immediately make significant financial amends to the family, which might've been, in the minds of some, far more equitable than the almost $16.6 million awarded in the lawsuit." Hear hear. While it's noble in not appealing the verdict, Entercom should have done the right thing from the start.

It's indeed sad that Strange should be remembered as Yet Another Example of What Not to Do, but perhaps when people read this, they'll think before performing some stupid stunt, and live because they don't want to end up like her. Let's hope, anyway.

- - -

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, and Digital Journal)

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39 Comments on This Entry

All comments in this blog are reviewed prior to being published. Spammers: don't waste your time. The posting criteria are simple: if a comment is worth visitors' time to read, it's approved. If not, it's not.


Posted by Walter, Florida on November 1, 2009:

I think it's horrible and a shame it happened but have to ask a question. Where was her husband, where was her family? Any kind of contest run by a radio/TV station has it's risks or why would they run them. She signed a release form.

How does money bring her back?

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Who cares where her husband was? Is he supposed to watch her at all times? And who says that contests have to have risks to people's lives? No one said money would bring her back, but when corporations commit gross negligence that results in someone dying, what else would you have the jury do? -rc

Posted by Phil, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A. on November 1, 2009:

Yet what is the answer to this problem, Randy?

These were grown adults voluntarily submitting themselves to this type of treatment, and there is more and more of it going on every day. Do we require that the sponsoring entity submit their plan to some watchdog group or governing entity for approval before going ahead, or do we continue to expect grown adults to be ultimately responsible for their own choices in life? Personally, I believe in this age of instant access to information that the latter would be my chosen path in such an instance.

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I'm not suggesting oversight, I'm suggesting that radio stations use common sense when they promote contests. This one shrugged off real dangers, and I'm quite sure didn't adequately inform contestants of those dangers. (I can't believe the release forms were anything but generic -- I doubt anyone believes their lawyer wrote up a specific one for this contest, knowing those dangers, and didn't strongly object to the obvious risks.) Is the expectation of reasonable care too much to ask? -rc

Posted by Kim, Sapulpa, OK on November 1, 2009:

What I can't help thinking is this:

If the radio station had run the stunt as life-threatening, would the outcome have been different?

In other words, if the radio station had notified the contestants of the similar deaths and specific risks/results of prior cases, and billed the stunt as something along the lines of "Would you chance death for a Wii?" and people STILL played, would the jury's verdict have been different?

I'm willing to wage that in our world today, the Jury would have said, she knew what she was doing, therefore, she accepted the consequences of her actions.

Here is what I'm struggling with though: It's really the same thing as Russian Roulette isn't it? I mean, it may be a bigger bullet-cylinder with more empty spaces and only the one bullet (less probability of certain death or damage) but there's still a bullet - the possibility itself still exists.

And yes, I'm quite aware that there are certain risks associated with doing anything....people have died being struck by an airplane while reading a newspaper in their own living room.

What would the Jury have thought if the station handed out loaded weapons to each contestant and asked them to pull the trigger?

I don't know why, but it is so easy to lose perspective in our world today.

Is it all about the probability? People tell me I worry too much.

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Well, to answer the question at the top, yes: I think that at least in this case, the jury would have made a different decision. But I'm not confident the decision would have been $0.... -rc

Posted by Susan, Florida on November 3, 2009:

Responding to Walter:

Money won't bring the woman back, but remember, her children are minus a parent for the rest of their lives. That's worth some punitive damage. Also, the husband will need to pay daycare, make up for her income, perhaps pay for therapy for the children and himself, etc. Death of a parent is incredibly hard on a family.

Posted by Barbara, Davis, CA right next to Sacto on November 3, 2009:

Sadly, many of us heard at least part of the show, and were thinking "That is sooo stupid!" Registered nurses were calling in, suggesting they stop. But they had goldfish swallowing in the '40's over radio, didn't they? There's always going to be someone who chooses to do some dumb stunt, and there's always going to be someone to provide the venue for it. The saddest part is the "innocent" - those who don't follow something to its logical or possible end, and get themselves into trouble. In the same vein, a 15 year old boy just died after falling from an 8 story parking garage in Sacramento. It is believed he was participating in "parkour" - an athletic, death-defying action game wherein you jump, tumble, climb, and hopefully survive. It's an urban challenge game. What do we do? Wrap everyone in cotton batting and forbid them to move?

Posted by Bob - Renton, WA on November 3, 2009:

I knew someone who died this way in jail, so I would be aware of it. However, I doubt if very many people really understand the danger. Dying? From drinking water? Come on!

If you're going to run a contest like this you need to 1) make sure you understand any health risks there may be and 2) make darn sure that the contestants understand them as well. I'm not a fan of frivolous law-suits, but I think this one just may have been justified.

Posted by Rick Kabul Afghanistan on November 3, 2009:

Radio and TV stations hold these sorts of contests because they increase ratings. One where a death occurs simply makes the remaining contests that much more irresistible to a certain sort of person. A lot of reality shows are not much better in terms of causing humiliation and creating dangerous situations for fun and profit.

What does it say about us as a society when we are collectively willing to look in on and listen to people putting themselves through dangerous and humiliating stunts for small prizes?

Posted by Walter, Florida on November 3, 2009:

Reply to Susan,

I agree with you 100% about one parent family now. But when are people going to take care of themselves? I talk from experience in that my wife died sudden over 32 years ago. I raised 7 children by myself so I understand one parent family. This could not have happened in one day if she had to sign a release. Where was her family, where was her husband? Did he go along with it? There are so many questions that should be answered.

Posted by Bob, Renton on November 3, 2009:

Oh, and the parkour thing: I think we can agree just by watching it that it's dangerous. Drinking water? Not so much. If I hadn't had an acquaintance who died from it, I wouldn't have thought there was a risk. The problem wasn't only how dangerous this was, but the fact that they didn't TELL anyone how dangerous it was. If you are apprised of the fact, it's your problem, but you need to know the risk first.

Posted by Bob in Bloomington, IL on November 4, 2009:

This was a just lawsuit. If the radio station had informed the contestants of the dangers of what they were about to do that would be different but they didn't. They also should have had invited or requested medical staff be present during the event. Those actions would have both provided for anything that could happen to the participants and curtailed any legal action. The radio station did neither, therefore they are negligent.

Posted by Walter, Florida on November 4, 2009:

Reply to Bob of Bloomington

Correct that the station is partial negligent but you still have to put part blame on the woman. What % of the blame should have been the question asked.

Posted by Sonya, Arizona on November 6, 2009:

It seems to me that the simple way to prevent this type of tragedy is to add electrolytes to the water to keep it isotonic. Anyone with medical knowledge agree or disagree? And, yes, I think that the station's release should have been specific in warning of the danger of drinking a large amount of water.

Posted by Doug (Canada) on November 7, 2009:

So put me down as heartless. Yes, the radio station was negligent. Yes, they are legally liable. And who cares? Anyone stupid enough to take part in a stunt like this gets exactly what they deserve, whether it be humiliation or death. And if you buy coffee from McD's and it burns you THAT'S your own fault, too. It is nobody's responsibility but your own to look after your own health and well-being. Assigning blame for this to anyone but the people who chose to participate and (knowingly or unknowingly) put their lives at risk only encourages MORE stupid people. Or to look at it from the other side, how do we KNOW she didn't know the risks? Maybe she did it ON PURPOSE so her family could sue the station. If she didn't, sooner or later SOMEONE will. We consider willingness to die for those we love to be one of the highest of ethics.

Regardless, taking the concept of PERSONAL responsibility out of our society is not doing us any favors. In my family, we have a term for those who make non-survival decisions: we call them "wolf food". If we believe in survival of the fittest and natural selection, like we say we do, why don't we apply it to ourselves? Those who are not able to make intelligent, survival choices ARE SUPPOSED TO DIE. That's how the species as a whole flourishes. It's this conflict between what we SAY we believe and how we behave as a society that baffles me.

Posted by Mark (UK) on November 7, 2009:

To Doug (Canada),

Before you heard about this story, did you KNOW drinking water could kill you?

And to imply that this was a deliberate action (i.e. suicide) to ensure her family's future, that isn't heartless, that's sick.

Posted by lenny, florida on November 7, 2009:

It really is crazy out there thinking "I can do this" but cause death my misadventure instead. What bothers me is not just how stupid she was, or her culpability, but her refusing to heed all of the warnings called in.

The next thing to bother me is the litigious society we live in. The first jury trial I participated in was about a woman who slipped on a wet spot at a food market. The reason for her slip was that she had dropped a soda pop bottle which broke. and also cut her. To top that off, her husband was suing for loss of her services till she could get her band aid removed.

How do we address the time a life is lost? We can't, but we can try. That is the unfair part. If somebody knows you have money, they will sue for more. Juries do not all think the same when trying to access the merits of the case and assign high dollar values out there for people who never had nothing worse to lose in their lives.

---

That she could probably hear the nurses calling in to warn how dangerous it is while she was participating in the contest is a good point that I hadn't thought of. That definitely does add a twist, which I'm sure was brought up during the trial. -rc

Posted by Mekhong Kurt on November 7, 2009:

I'm probably going to get reamed for saying this, Randy, but I figure the radio station's *moral* (though not legal) responsibility is minimal at best. Obviously, I didn't know the lady who died, and I do feel sorry for her and her loved ones. But it was idiotic for her to take part in such a contest. At the very least, she should have asked someone -- anyone; her husband maybe? -- about whether or not this might present some peril, which of course it did.

Back to the radio station. I have no idea what the laws regarding liability are in such a case, but I do hope that anyone promoting a contest involving potential danger to participants is required, by law, to advertise that fact. For instance, if someone goes to make a parachute jump, he or she is required to sign a waiver. And anyplace I ever heard of, in the example of parachuting, makes crystal-clear the potential dangers FIRST, as is only right and proper. Apparently the radio station folks didn't do that, so in that sense, they are at the very least morally responsible, though, as I said, I don't know the laws regarding the matter.

This is a human tragedy that shouldn't have happened.

Posted by butch holland...Texan stuck in Georgia on November 7, 2009:

Is it me or are people becoming desensitized from any kind of basic humanity. Everyone seems to be in there own ME-ME bubble. It seems like the younger the generation the less they are in touch with any type of moral reality.

There's Clowns to the left of me - Jokers to the right, Here I am stuck in the middle of idiots. It all reminds me of Mad Max beyond Thunder Dome mentality. Can't wait too see what the next few generations will be like...HMMM

Posted by Mike from Dallas on November 7, 2009:

Caveat Emptor? Who does the ultimate responsibility fall upon? I agree that, having a suspicion as they did, the station does hold some moral or ethical blame, but legally? And $34 million worth? There are lottery jackpots that aren't even that high.

Personally, I think the dram shop laws are reprehensible. It legally assigns responsibility to forcefully interfere in the lives of others against their will, while in the course of doing an otherwise legal business. In other words, Advanced Adult Babysitting.

With such worries about litigation, we become bogged down in endless 'what-if' scenarios that never have a concrete answer. (Witness the Stella Awards.)

My organization offered a contest in which one of the prizes was free tickets to a laser tag emporium. We changed it (against my vote) to another prize because the prizes were to be awarded the weekend following the Columbine Massacre. The organization was worried about potential lawsuits about encouraging violent behavior.

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A "dram shop" is another name for a bar. Dram shop laws hold the bar liable should an intoxicated patron injure someone else, such as if they drive drunk. Bars have been sued for serving someone who is "obviously intoxicated", and some of these suits have been successful. -rc

Posted by E.Z.Louie, PA on November 7, 2009:

An award at trial for an idiot doing something stupid? Not very novel, sadly, on either count.

The only thing that saddens and angers me about this is that another imbicile (in this case her family) has been rewarded for being stupid, and life in what used to be a free country has become more expensive, more litigious, and less free.

Come on, Randy, quit whining. This should be one for the True Stella Awards!

---

I don't see any whining at all here. And if you can't spell imbecile, you probably shouldn't call someone one. -rc

Posted by Mae from India on November 7, 2009:

Responding to Kim: "If the radio station had run the stunt as life-threatening, would the outcome have been different?

There's a very good chance that a mother of 3 wouldn't risk it for a Wii if she knew the dangers of the contest.

Responding to Phil: "Do we require that the sponsoring entity submit their plan to some watchdog group or governing entity for approval before going ahead, or do we continue to expect grown adults to be ultimately responsible for their own choices in life?"

I agree that the sponsoring entity cannot be expected to scrutinise every tiny possibility of danger each time they organise an event. However, in this case they were well aware of the particular danger of this contest and (I'm assuming through deduction of the facts mentioned thus far) did not disclose it to the contestants. I hence hold them liable.

If they HAD communicated all contestants of this particular danger, then I'd agree that the liability was passed on to the contestants.

To everyone out there: We've got to remember that everyone is not the same as us. While some of us knew of the danger of excessive water drinking in a short time (I didn't until I saw this post - thanks Randy) and others might have researched the dangers of doing so before participating, not everyone thinks the same way as we do. You could have a person, who in normal circumstances might never have been able to afford a Wii, so excited that he/she could finally win one and hence thinks no more than that. You could have a person that might have played similar contests as a kid with friends, and since nothing ever went wrong back then, the thought of danger in such a contest doesn't even cross his/her mind. The list goes on.

Bottom line is that this could have been a freak accident if neither party was aware of the dangers. But since one side did...

Posted by Walter, Florida on November 8, 2009:

Reply to Mike from Dallas,

You hit the nail on the head. What about the parents that sued the baseball bat company. It was an aluminum bat and the company did not put a caution "ball is faster hitting with this bat than a wood bat". Their son was hit with the ball and died. Parents sued and won.

Posted by Mary, Nebraska on November 8, 2009:

Wow, many people seem to be of the opinion she "deserved" to die because she was desperate. I can imagine with 3 kids it might have been the only way she could get them such an expensive toy. Maybe they would have liked the chance to personally pour the water down her throat to get her out of the gene pool, yeah? Do any of the people judging her use lets say seat belts/air bags, or have you removed these safety features from your car so you also take your "fair" chance to be wolf food? Don't call the ambulance when I get mugged walking down a dark street coming home from the theater, I must be unfit to continue living if I enjoy occasionally going out of my house. Think before you judge someone else, I believe thats a pretty old concept. If no one did anything a little foolish for the sake of their children ( work as a cop, fireman, soldier, a million years ago fight off wolves) I don't suppose many of us would be around to pass judgment from on high.

Posted by Jo-Ann- PA on November 8, 2009:

The desensitization that Butch Holland mentions became socially acceptable with the success of America's Funniest Home Videos. Before then the wince/giggle response people had when they saw someone get hurt was more in sympathy to the "victim". AFV made it socially acceptable to actually laugh at another's pain.

Posted by Walter, Florida on November 8, 2009:

Reply to Mary of Nebraska

I don't think there was a poster who said she deserved to die, what is being debated is taking control of your own life. What role does outside influence play?

Posted by Doug (Canada) on November 8, 2009:

Just because I think bad choices should be fatal, doesn't mean I am insensitive to other people's pain. I have made my own stupid choices in my life. So far, none have been fatal (clearly). Luck plays a part in natural selection, too. Hell, maybe we're MOSTLY selecting for the lucky. But what is a personal tragedy is also a species tragedy when we decide that each and every single human being's continued existence is paramount over all other considerations. It is easily arguable that there are simply too many human beings on the planet. Should we kill some off to make room? Of course not. But I don't think we should mourn when one (or more) of us moves out, either... particularly in cases where either they earned it by their poor choices, or when they died exactly how they chose, doing what they chose. The best example of the latter (timely plug) being soldiers who have decided defending the rest of us is more important than their own individual survival.

Maybe we are desensitized... though I see very little evidence of it. What I DO see is bleeding hearts crying over people they don't even know. So if we're desensitized, as of when? Up until this past century, people had little concern about the deaths of those they didn't know personally. It is the recent vogue for us to mourn strangers.

As for Mary in Nebraska's fallacious argument that we should disable seat belts and such... choosing not to use an available safety device SHOULD be allowed. Why make it illegal to kill yourself at all, let alone by negligence? But doing so IS a non-survival choice, and therefore fits my earlier argument, rather than contradicting it. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter WHY you make a stupid, non-survival choice. The best intentions don't make you less stupid... or less dead.

Posted by Rewinn, Mercer Island on November 8, 2009:

"...Just because I think bad choices should be fatal, doesn't mean I am insensitive to other people's pain..."

Yes it does.

And at any rate, that is not the issue. The radio station made a choice. Why should it escape paying the price of *its* stupidity?

Posted by J from Castle Rock on November 9, 2009:

Interesting discussion, as always. Seems the thoughtful people congregate here and there is a "no trolls allowed" barrier that is seldom found on the internet.

I wholeheartedly agree that the Station must take responsibility in understanding the dangers of any stunt they propose. Lack of research on their part is why they had to pay.

I find it interesting that the jury "held Strange herself was not negligent in her own death". How is she not responsible, as the station clearly is, for researching a potential stunt she wants to take part in?

Is it reasonable to assume that any stunt that is put on must be safe? I don't think so.

And I've seen radio station stunts before, the contestants would probably have heard the nurse that called in just as much as the DJ's did and they, too, chose to ignore that call.

My conclusion, not having set on the Jury and heard all of the testimony, would be that there is a 50-50 responsibility for her death. A contestant would have all the duty of knowing what they are doing before VOLUNTEERING for an activity that the people hosting the activity have.

---

Regarding "trolls", I do approve provocative comments, both pro and con, but the real idiotic ones go to the trash before anyone sees them. Luckily, there are very few of them. -rc

Posted by Terrell, Oklahoma on November 9, 2009:

People keep asking "what if" the radio station had notified the participants of the significant risk of death in such an activity - would the participants then have been more responsible for such tragic results. I think that this is entirely the wrong question. When did it become OK for people to put the lives of others at significant risk for the amusement of others, whether they've been notified of that risk or not? The point is that once the radio station was made aware of the risks, they should not have informed the participants - they should have stopped the contest.

But what, you may ask, about things like skydiving, bungee jumping, tight rope walking, free running, even normal sports like basketball, football, and soccer where the risks are small but do exist? The difference to me is that in all of those things, if you do it right and take the proper precautions, the expectation is that it will be safe. However, in the case of such a contest as in the story, if you do what the contest asks you to do (drink a large amount of water in a short period of time), the expectation is that your health will be significantly compromised.

And before you judge the family of the woman who died, consider this (not new or original) fact: in our system of civil justice, juries and judges have only one real means of punishment against companies, and only one real means of restitution to families - monetary awards. They can't bring back dead family members or restore lost health. And the only means they have of showing just how reprehensible they believe a particular offense is through the size of the award.

On a side note, my personal belief is that such things will always happen as long as we are such a boorish, ignorant society whose major source of amusement is the pain and humiliation of other human beings. When will that change? Well, probably never, but one can hope.

Posted by jimmy, NewYork on November 9, 2009:

Strange's death is not worth $16 million dollars. That is the problem with jury awards.

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What, then, is it worth? And is her life's "worth" the only thing the jury should consider, or should it consider the corporation, and what would get its attention so to ensure it's not so callous in the future? -rc

Posted by Doug (Canada) on November 9, 2009:

Pain is universal. To share the pain of every person everywhere all the time is not simply impossible and irrational... it's insane. I'll stick with caring about the people I care about, thanks. If I knew the woman's family personally, I would be far more empathetic with their plight, but it would not change my opinion on the issue, the situation, or the woman's choice.

As for "the issue", the radio station DID pay the price of its stupidity... as it should, to the tune of $16 million (perhaps excessive...). So did the woman... as SHE should, with her life (perhaps also excessive). It is unfortunate that consequences sometimes don't seem to be in scale with the apparent "badness" of the choice.

Maybe it's not reasonable to assume she should have known the risks. OTOH, Google is available to everyone. Checking whether or not this specific activity was safe was not only possible for her and every other participant, it SHOULD HAVE BEEN THEIR RESPONSIBILITY. If YOU will bear the consequences, YOU should be responsible for knowing what they will be before you choose the behavior. If you, for some reason, are unable to find out then you are choosing to take an unknown risk, which is still your own choice and therefore responsibility.

I believe that personal choice and personal responsibility are paramount for a free society. Putting the onus on governments and corporations to protect us from our own ignorance and/or stupidity is unreasonable. Yes, they should be held accountable for THEIR actions as well. But it's not "Is the woman at fault or is the radio station?". BOTH were stupid. The fact that the radio station set up a situation that allowed the woman's stupidity to kill her does not absolve her of her bad choice and its consequences.

Posted by Tim in Denver on November 9, 2009:

Kudos to the the radio station for not appealing, and I don't fault them for defending the case.

Part of the legal process in a civil is the finding of fact and the assessment of negligence. In this case, both parties should have known better, and they are entitled to have a disinterested third party determine how much culpability both sides bear.

That is how the legal system is supposed to work, and in this case, it did.

Posted by Bob Bakersfield, CA on November 10, 2009:

The TRUE end of this strange death story should be, how much money did her family actually get to deposit into their bank account after all the attorney bills and fees rolled in?

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A good question, and one that's still to be determined, I'm sure. -rc

Posted by Matt Y, in Boston Mass. on November 12, 2009:

In response to Bob in Bakersfield, CA: her family probably took home about 10-12 million $. Tort actions like this are almost always taken on contingency fees by the plaintiff's attorney, i.e. if you lose your lawyers get nothing, if you win they get 25% to 33% (whatever you agreed to, that range is typical). Then the tax man shows up! Lawsuit settlements and jury awards (such as this) are taxable. Figure the IRS took 35% of that 10-12 million, so that leaves them with about 6.6 to 8 million. Calif. state taxes too, and local (which I don't know) - probably took another 0.5 million. Which probably left them with enough to take care of them for the rest of their lives. Especially if they arranged a structured settlement, which is a very wise thing to do....

A few points about tort law, which is relevant to many comments here. An award like this is designed to do three things: compensate the deceased's family, punish the tortfeasor (lawyer-speak for "person who did a dumb thing that hurt someone), and deter other people from doing similar stupid things. To those goals, $16M seems pretty fair. It set her family up for life. The radio station got it - they didn't appeal, they fired the idiots who ran the stunt, and they probably won't let dumb crap like that happen again. And, other radio stations and idiots probably won't either.

As to the dumbness of the woman who died: yeah, she was dumb. From the facts here I can't tell how much she was told about the risks. That would matter to how much the award should be reduced by (maybe - it depends on California's laws, which I don't know). But, it looks like the jury decided she wasn't at fault (or maybe awarded the 34M$ and reduced by 50% for her being 50% at fault - or awarded 20M$ and reduced by 20% for her being 20% at fault - hard to say on what is written here!) Almost every state has juries decide how much the harm & award is worth, decide how much at fault the two sides are, and then reduce the award by that percentage.

It may seem dumb, but that's how the law works!

Posted by Shirley, Iowa on November 14, 2009:

I looked up some of the details of this case.

The contestants were sequestered in a conference room at the radio station and could not hear what was being aired. Most or all of them anticipated it would take several hours to finish, so there were several with laptops and at least one woman (not the victim) with a portable DVD player.

At least two contestants complained of headaches and radio station employees told them that getting a headache was normal, that it was "your body's way of telling you to stop drinking." Nothing was said about a headache being a possible symptom of water intoxication, even though a caller did list headache as a possible symptom. While the DJs should not have taken a caller's word for it (even though she identified herself as an RN, they could not verify her identity), they could have easily called a doctor, an ER or a poison hotline to verify the information. They chose not to do so.

Finally, the way two of the three DJs joked on air about possible deaths was pretty repellent in light of what happened. I'm sure that may have had some effect.

Posted by Mike from Dallas on November 18, 2009:

Aha! So very interesting about missing facts. This was not an over the air radio contest, but one in which the participants were held on premise IN CARE of the station and its staff.

So now the question is, what was the family's initial demand; $34 mil? So the station refused, court ensued, and the final verdict was $16 mil. Even though the station lost, it sounds like they still won, IF those are the facts.

---

It is indeed hard to say, even when you look at the sources I link to. -rc

Posted by Shirley, Iowa on November 21, 2009:

In musing over this situation, I realized something else.

In the past 10-20 years, there have been thousands of articles in popular media touting the benefits of drinking water. People are told to drink a minimum of 8 eight ounce glasses of water a day. They're told that even if they are not experiencing thirst, they should drink water. Advice like "carry a water container, keep filling it and keep it empty" is common.

The only articles about possible dangers of overconsumption of water that I can recall reading in the last 20 years have been the relatively rare cases of water intoxication.

Faced with the barrage of messages to drink even when not actively thirsty, I find it completely believable that the victim had not the faintest idea that drinking too much water could be dangerous.

The same cannot be said of the DJs who ran the contest, one of whom admitted in court that he knew of a water intoxication death nearby.

Posted by AllanW, Rancho Cucamonga on November 24, 2009:

Doug(Canada) wrote: Maybe it's not reasonable to assume she should have known the risks. OTOH, Google is available to everyone. Checking whether or not this specific activity was safe was not only possible for her and every other participant, it SHOULD HAVE BEEN THEIR RESPONSIBILITY.

To some degree, that's obviously true. If we have a contest for the most parachute jump, I would expect all of the contestants to understand the risks of parachute jumping before they apply.

But Doug, let's try not to get ridiculous. Do you research "whether or not this specific activity was safe" for EVERY activity, before you make it? Of course not! [And have you researched whether or not it is safe to research if an activity is safe?]

Suppose a radio station has a contest to see who can write the best original poetry. Would you expect all of the contestants to have done a Google search to see if poetry was dangerous? (I'm curious how such a search would even be phrased. Google for "danger of poetry" has over 7,000,000 hits – but as far as I can tell, most of these are either poems about danger, or attempts at humor. I have no idea how to find out if any of them actually claim that poetry is dangerous.)

Suppose a radio station has a contest to see who can make the best chili. Obviously such a contest is going to require a grill, and obviously grills can be dangerous – but obviously there will be provisions made (including legally-mandated provisions) to keep the risk at reasonable levels. Would you expect every contestant to do research on every brand of grill, so that no matter what facilities are provided they can properly assess the risk before making a decision to enter the contest or not?

Suppose a radio station has a contest to see who is quickest at drinking 16 ounces of cold water. Would you expect every contestant to understand every conceivable (or even every reasonable) risk associated with this? Or would you expect most contestants to say, "if the water appears to be uncontaminated, the risks are small enough to ignore?"

I would think that the real-life contest ("Hold your Wee for a Wii") would sound EXTREMELY similar to my last example (drink 16 ounces of water) to anyone that had never heard of "water intoxication" (that included me, until recently). Therefore, I would expect that most of the contestants would assume that the contest is safe, without having done any research at all.

By the same standard, if the radio station staff responsible for this contest hadn't heard of "water intoxication", I wouldn't hold them liable either. But it's very different if someone calls up during the contest to explain the dangers – I think someone already pointed out that even if they didn't believe that the caller really was a nurse, at this point they had a duty to investigate, and Google was still available. Furthermore, the story also explains that the DJ's had heard about previous cases, and did nothing to stop the contest.

Even if it was reasonable for the station to ignore the dangers BEFORE the contest, once the danger had been pointed out to them it BECAME their duty to investigate, and a Google search has 419,000 hits – starting with a Wikipedia article that does a good job of explaining it.

---

You do realize, of course, that there is some level of danger in posting comments on web sites? Because that is true! -rc

Posted by Don, Mass. on December 19, 2009:

Thanks to Shirley, Iowa for looking up details. "We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the secret sits in the middle and knows."

This case seems to be the confluence of two invidious effects of television. The first is the one identified by Jo-Ann PA, that it has become socially acceptable to witness and even laugh at other people being humiliated and/or hurt. The second is the cult of celebrity - somehow celebrity is no longer a matter of doing something significant, but simply one of being known by a large number of people.

The result is a plethora of projects and programs in which people volunteer to be humiliated, or do dumb things, in media events, so they become known by the people who tune in to those, who are also the people who will recognize them as celebrities from the exposure.

Couple this with our peculiar brand of capitalism - it doesn't matter how many people you inconvenience if you can make money at it. How else to explain small noisy planes circling Fenway park for hours during baseball games; having to stop conversations in Boston Common to wait for airplanes landing at Logan to pass over; billboards; taking private property by eminent domain to develop industrial centers; paving wetlands to build more houses and many other examples of appropriating the commons for private profit.

And so there's no onus attendant upon commercial (out to make a profit) media organizations sponsoring dumb or even dangerous stunts to draw audience, and there seems to be no lack of people willing to participate or watch.

But if a doctor prescribes a drug, he's legally required to warn of potential side effects. Appliance and toy manufacturers are legally required to design products in such a fashion that they do not introduce ancillary dangers. Employers are legally required to provide safe working premises - the argument that people don't have to work there has never held water.

And so we have the issue of a radio station sponsoring a not only dumb, but potentially life-threatening stunt - and they knew it was potentially life-threatening, did not inform the participants, and did not disqualify participants when they started showing symptoms of physical damage. And a participant who followed the rules prescribed by the station personnel died of the very risk station personnel knew was being run.

As far as I'm concerned, they got off easy - they should have lost their broadcasting license (granted by the government based on certain criteria of public service), and there should have been criminal trials of participants and executives, as there could have been in other industries (e.g. medical devices). It is a sad comment on our desensitized society that our debate focuses on whether the family got a "just" settlement.

Posted by Tom in the Carolinas on January 11, 2017:

I will toss this in: Water Poisoning of this sort was n.o.t common knowledge for a long time, and maybe it isn't now.

About ten years ago, there was a case of a woman in the Southeast that put herself on a water diet (that is, when she got hungry she'd drink water) and died of water poisoning. She was a Ph.D., and did not know about the dangers, so I don't think it is reasonable to say everyone is expected about them.

Water is pretty ubiquitous in our lives here in the U.S., and it is hard to think of it as a poison. But everything, even oxygen, is poisonous in the wrong quantity. "This is True", so to speak, even if it is not common knowledge. I feel bad about these deaths, but I am grateful that they taught me about this danger.

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I don't think "everyone" should be expected to know about water intoxication, and that's not the point here. As it says in the write-up, "During the radio station contest ... a nurse called the radio station to warn them that what they were doing was extremely dangerous. One DJ said he was even aware of such a case that ended in death, and another shrugged it off." In other words, they DID know about it, and encouraged reckless behavior anyway. That makes it actionable; indeed there was court action, and they rightfully lost. -rc

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