The other day, I commented on the very sad death of a young woman named Jennifer Strange. In essence, Ms. Strange died after a radio contest to see who could drink the most water without urinating. The prize? A Wii. This was pretty clearly a case of water intoxication leading to hyponatremia, an impression that was reinforced by a later report (now confirmed) that she had drunk 2 gallons of water in a short period of time. Since then, the three DJs involved in the contest, plus seven other employees of the radio station, have been fired for “violating the terms of their employee agreements.”
On multiple blogs and in a mailing list that I belong to, a vigorous debate has been going on about whether the radio station is to blame for this tragic death or whether the woman should have known better (a point made by one commenter right here who seemed to be way more upset that his favorite radio show is now off the air than he was that a woman died a pointless death because of the idiotic recklessness of the DJs on his favorite radio show). Indeed, at times the debate in some quarters has bordered on the tasteless, with some even suggesting that Ms. Strange should be considered for a Darwin Award. (My equally tasteless response to such quips: She was doing it for her kids, which means she had already reproduced, which means that she would be a poor candidate for a Darwin Award.)
With that background, let’s see what people think about the question of the radio station’s responsibility and legal liability after reading this:
Jennifer Strange complained on-air Friday that she had a headache and felt lightheaded, but offered to drink even more water if hosts of KDND’s “Morning Rave” wanted her to.
The haunting exchange that preceded her death several hours later is captured in a recording of the show The Bee obtained on Tuesday.
The four-hour and 40-minute recording indicates that the show’s hosts knew of the dangers of water intoxication — even discussing a case two years ago in which a student at California State University, Chico, died after drinking too much water during a fraternity hazing.
“Maybe we should have researched this,” one of the DJs is heard saying before the contest started.
In a groggy conversation with a co-host of the “Morning Rave,” Strange, 28, said after dropping out of the contest that her head hurt, but that “they keep telling me though that it’s the water, that it will tell my head to hurt and then it will make me puke.”
“Who told you that, the intern?” a host asked Strange.
“Yeah,” she replied. “It hurts, but makes you feel lightheaded.”
The DJ told Strange that “this is what it feels like when you’re drowning.”
“There’s a lot of water inside of you,” he said.
Pretty damned negligent and irresponsible, I’d say. They even joked about the possibility of someone dying before the contest started and made cracks about making sure that the contestants signed the release:
Nearly 40 minutes before kicking off the contest, the “Morning Rave” hosts discussed the dangers of water poisoning. One DJ mentioned he had once drunk two gallons of water.
“Can’t you get water poisoning and, like, die?” asked another host.
“Your body is 98 percent water,” a co-host responded. “Why can’t you take in as much water as you want?”
Someone in the background was heard asking about “that poor kid in college,” apparently referring to Matthew Carrington, who died in 2005 after an all-night fraternity hazing.
“That’s what I was thinking,” a host responded.
“Yeah, well, he was doing other things,” someone else said.
About two hours into the contest, a woman who identified herself as Eva called the show. She warned the hosts that “those people that are drinking all that water can get sick and possibly die from water intoxication.”
One host replied that “we’re aware of that.” Another said the contestants had signed releases, “so we’re not responsible.”
“And if they get to the point where they have to throw up, then they’re going to throw up and they’re out of the contest before they die, so that’s good, right?” one host said. One of the hosts then asked a DJ stationed in the kitchen with the contestants, “Is anybody dying in there?”
“We got a guy who’s just about to die,” he said.
“Make sure he signs the release,” the host replied.
Audio excerpts from the morning show during which the contest was held can be heard here. There is also ammunition for the other side, although I don’t think it’s enough to mitigate the culpability of the radio station:
Strange and the contest’s winner were escorted from a kitchen inside the station and into a studio, where one host said Strange’s stomach was so large she looked “three months pregnant.” A host then asked Strange if she wanted to lie down.
“I could probably drink more if you guys could pick me up,” Strange told the hosts. “Do you want me to? What can I get?”
Stupidity on all sides, but I still think that the radio station is probably still legally liable. Certainly it’s morally culpable. People seem to forget here that it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. It is not a case where either the radio station must be to blame or Jennifer Strange must be responsible. Blame can and will be apportioned, if this comes to a lawsuit as expected. In addition, even if Jennifer Strange is partially to blame for continuing with this stunt after she started feeling ill, that does not excuse or preclude the radio station from being held liable for holding this reckless contest, given that the DJs clearly knew that people had died of water intoxication before, that proper informed consent to contestants was apparently never provided,and that the on-air staff both brushed aside warnings that this stunt could be dangerous and discounted signs among at least two of the contestants (Ms. Strange and one other) that they were becoming ill while making the incorrect claim that a contestant would vomit before getting into serious trouble. Holding the radio station responsible, either for civil or criminal penalties, for its misdeeds and acknowledging that Jennifer Strange did have some measure of responsibility for her own death because she took part in the contest voluntarily are not mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, as to the elements, I qua prosecutor would argue that coaxing someone into performing a biologically unreasonable act (i.e., drinking and not urinating) without researching the potential health risks constitutes reckless disregard for human life within the common law / MPC meaning of the term (i.e., involuntary manslaughter) or certainly criminal negligence for the purposes of C.N. homicide.
But would I prosecute? Probably not.
As for tort law, the radio station was again clearly negligent for not researching the issue and therefore liable. I doubt an assumption of risk/comparative fault argument would work, because again a reasonable person would presume that the radio station researched the issue beforehand.
So, at the risk of igniting more rancor, let’s hear your opinion after having seen the transcripts and/or listened to parts of the radio broadcast. Who is more responsible for this tragedy, Jennifer Strange or the radio station? My vote is that the radio station is more culpable and should be held responsible, perhaps even criminally responsible, even though it is clear that Ms. Strange did bear at least some measure of responsibility for her own death. Again, reasonable people tend to assume that a radio station would not hold such a contest if it weren’t safe, and the DJs clearly egged her and other contestants on even after she was starting to feel ill (even going so far as to try to reassure them that they would throw up before they got into any serious medical trouble) and after a caller had warned them that the contest was potentially dangerous. Firing is far too mild a penalty for them, at least.
Of course the truly tragic thing about this whole thing is that there are now children without a mother. When their mother dies in such a pointless and stupid manner, how do you explain it to her kids?