Respectful Insolence

A truly pointless way to die, part 2

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.

As one lawyerwho commented on the legal ramifications of this case in another blog said:

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Colugo
    January 18, 2007

    Aren’t the Darwin Awards themselves callous and immature, not to mention suggestive of a highly distorted definition of Darwinism? It’s Faces of Death-style exploitation combined with something of a eugenic, Social Darwinist ethos.

    I have seen people who otherwise are humanitarians giggling over the grotesque, agonizing death or mutilation of a human being whose worst crime was foolishness, as long as the incident has the potential of being been “honored” with a Darwin Award.

    I can understand the grim and well-earned mockery of a suicide bomber whose bomb detonated early and hurt no innocents. But the Darwin Awards don’t discriminate between evil and stupidity.

    The idea of the Darwin Awards has been taken too far, and it’s no longer funny.

  2. #2 Paul A
    January 18, 2007

    suggestive of a highly distorted definition of Darwinism

    Jeez, lighten up. Are you the type of person who rails against the Flintstones because Wilma does all the cooking and it’s therefore perpetuating female stereotypes? The Darwin awards are there for entertainment for starters, a chance for us to laugh at death. Sometimes it may seem callous but these are extreme situations we’re talking about here where any degree of sombre reflection is just impossible (crushed by a giant rock while getting it on with a chicken, I mean you gotta laugh!)

    As saying they don’t discriminate between evil and stupidity you’re well off the mark. The Darwin Awards have nothing to do with evil so you’ll not tend to find any failed suicide bombers mentioned. Yes they are idiots but I find it difficult to laugh at what they do as they were intending to KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE. Obviously you can glean some mirth out of this but not me, all I see is a failed murderer and the ever-present shadow of religious extremism infecting the world.

    The Darwin Awards celebrate the highest peaks (or lowest troughs) of human stupidity and ignorance. We laugh at the stupid ones (recently the guy trying to explode a grenade by hitting it and runnig over it with a truck) and pity the ignorant (I let out a disappointed groan at the helium balloon couple). It’s harmless fun for people with functioning senses of humour.

  3. #3 Paul A
    January 18, 2007

    Forgot to mention in my post, I count this one as a truly tragic death and not a candidate for the Darwin Awards seeing as the deceased was being assured of her safety and egged on . She put her faith in someone she assumed knew what they were talking about, she was deceived and now her children have to grow up without a mother (and just wait till the kids in school find out how she died, their lives will be absolute hell).

    I’m a huge advocate of personal responsibility but those who colluded in her death and failed to warn her of the potential consequences should have the book thrown at them.

  4. #4 Ahistoricality
    January 18, 2007

    I think there’s more than enough real responsibility to go around. The problem, as that lawyer you cite at the end suggests, is that assigning blame is a very different matter, but at the very least anyone involved in this stunt on the station side should be spending a lot of time talking to unfriendly lawyers for the forseeable future.

  5. #5 Davis
    January 18, 2007

    The radio station is clearly more responsible. I thought as much before, and the new information makes me even more certain of that.

    If she didn’t know the dangers of water intoxication (which is likely), it seems reasonable that it wouldn’t seem dangerous to her. And it also seems reasonable to assume the station wouldn’t be holding a contest that would put the contestants’ lives at risk, at least in light of that ignorance.

    The station, on the other hand, had a clear responsibility to do some research before holding this contest (hell, a Google search would have told them this was dangerous). If they even suspected this was dangerous, as seems to be the case, then they had no business holding this contest. Knowingly enticing someone to risk her life is reprehensible; enticing someone ignorant of the danger is flat out criminal.

  6. #6 wolfwalker
    January 18, 2007

    I agree with Davis. The behavior of the radio station employees was criminal. I’m no lawyer, but as an “interested layman” I’d guess their actions probably qualify for charges under most manslaughter statutes. It may rise to the level of what some states call “depraved indifference,” which is one of the lesser forms of murder.

  7. #7 Miguelito
    January 18, 2007

    If this was a drinking contest involving alcohol, to see who could drink the most before they passed out, and she died of alcohol poisoning, they’d prosecute the DJs.

    If they had a Russian-roulette contest where they loaded a blank into one of the chambers (and told the contestants that it was “only” a blank and they wouldn’t get hurt) and she ended up killing herself (it’s happened elsewhere), they’d be prosecuted.

    They knew the danger existed. Just because it’s odd, doesn’t mean that weren’t criminally negligent.

  8. #8 Robert M.
    January 18, 2007

    My thoughts before reading the excerpts…
    “There are two possibilities: either the DJs and station didn’t do their research, or they knew it was dangerous, failed to inform the contestants, and went ahead with the contest anyway. In either case, they share at least half the responsibility.”

    My thoughts afterward:
    “What a callous bunch of jackasses. Prosecute them.”

  9. #9 KevinC
    January 18, 2007

    One other think that bothered me about this case was the actions of her co-workers.

    “She said to one of our supervisors that she was on her way home and her head was hurting her real bad,” said Laura Rios, one of Strange’s co-workers at Radiological Associates of Sacramento. “She was crying, and that was the last that anyone had heard from her.”

    There is one radiology office I never want to go to. A medical office and they let her go home, that supervisor should have sent her to the hospital.

  10. #10 William the Coroner
    January 18, 2007

    As a coroner, I would rule Ms. Strange’s death Acute hyponatremia due to water intoxication, manner Accidental (as it was due to the unintended willful actions of the decedent). I would suggest that my prosecutor take it to the Grand Jury. Any criminal/civil penalties need to be assigned by the legal system.

    This is an analogue of a case I did have, a young man was riding his skateboard hanging on to the bumper of a station wagon. He hit a pothole in the car park, fell, had brain swelling, foraminal herniation and died. Though he chose to do this action of his own free will, he died, and the prosecutor went after the driver of the station wagon. The actions were deemed so inherently dangerous that it was in the best interests of the state to punish the driver. From the quotes you give above, Orac, I’d encourage my prosecutor to take it to the Grand Jury, and I’d bet they’d get a true bill.

  11. #11 Dunc
    January 18, 2007

    You may be interested in this rather good post on The Fallacy of Finite Responsibility over on The Sharpener.

  12. #12 Orac
    January 18, 2007

    There is one radiology office I never want to go to. A medical office and they let her go home, that supervisor should have sent her to the hospital.

    It sounded to me as though Ms. Strange was on the way to work after the contest and decided to call in sick. It doesn’t sound as though she spoke with one of the doctors there, just the supervisor. It’s also unknown whether Laura Rios knew Strange had participated in the contest. (Would you tell your supervisor that the reason you were too sick to come to work was because you had participated in a radio contest? I wouldn’t.) Even if anyone knew, it’s also highly unlikely anyone at the radiology office knew just how much water Strange had drunk. Even if Rios had, there’s no reason to expect that she would be any more aware than anyone else just how much trouble Strange was in and that people die from water intoxication.

    Most likely, Rios was just an office manager, in charge of supervising and scheduling the receptionists, medical transcriptionists, and technicians. Just because someone works in a medical office doesn’t necessarily make them that more medically sophisticated than your average person off the street.

    Heck, even a doctor might not have picked up on how much trouble Strange was in just from a phone call (although I would hope that any physician faced with a call from a woman with a headache so severe that she was crying would urge her to see her doctor immediately or to go to the E.R.). Death from water intoxication in a young, otherwise healthy individual is fairly uncommon, for one thing, and unless the doctor knew that she had drunk two gallons over less than three hours he might assume that she would probably be OK if she just waited things out. In fact, given the speed with which Strange died (sometime between arriving home after 9 AM and 2PM, when her mother showed up to check on her), only a trip to the emergency room would have been likely to be able to have saved her.

  13. #13 jba
    January 18, 2007

    I really hope that the station gets hit really hard, legally, for this. Judging from the quotes above they knew the risks and went ahead anyhow thinking waivers would save them if something bad happened. I would say thats negligence at the least, and manslaughter IMO. That being said, I cant feel too sorry for this woman. She chose to do it, didnt check on risks, blindly trusted the radio station, kept going after a responsible person should have stopped and didnt seek medical help when she felt so ill/in pain that she was crying. Her children are the ones I feel sorry for, this is going to damage their lives forever. Call me cold if you like, but thats the way I see it.

  14. #14 Kevin W. Parker
    January 18, 2007

    I’d say both Strange and the radio station bear responsibility. She’s paid a huge price for it, and the radio station (and the relevant staff) should be made to do likewise.

  15. #15 Observer
    January 18, 2007

    This is very sad, and listening to the DJs’ repugnant comments is disturbing. It is brought to their attention that drinking a lot of water is dangerous; one DJ comments that Ms. Strange is small, that she’s bloated like she’s 2 or 3 months pregnant, and she is complaining of a bad headache. They should have called an ambulance just to be sure. What would it have hurt to be on the safe side? Their reactions are bizarre. When we’ve had bike races we never leave a person alone, call an ambulance or bring them to the hospital if they complain of headaches or whatever. People are stressing their bodies out in one way or another – everybody reacts differently. Better to be safe than make ignorant assumptions!

    I polled my office – no one appears to be familiar with how much water is dangerous. “I stop when I have to pee,” was one comment I got. When we go for ultrasounds we have to drink 32 oz. right before the appointment. Once I couldn’t hold it, so I quickly downed another 32 oz right before the exam.

    Orac, if she had gotten to the emergency room, what is the procedure in these cases? What can a person do to help someone if they think a person may have reached the tipping point? Also, is there a chart or some reference guide I can give my fellow employees about water drinking that you would recommend? Apparently people are not as clued in as others may think they should be.

  16. #16 Joe
    January 18, 2007

    I agree with jba that the radio station should be hit hard. And, if I may extend the insightful comment of William the C, the state’s interest in prosecuting also includes issuing a warning to anyone else inclined to do anything similar.

    Unlike jba, I assign a low level of culpability to the victim. Recognizing and understanding risk are not things we do very well. If a driver is killed by a car that crosses the center-line and hit him head-on, would it be fair to say the victim should have known the risk when he got in his car? When it comes to risk analysis, the numbers are different for each scenario; but the underlying facts are the same (you take a “chance” in whatever you do). A layman can’t be expected to know the numbers (especially in exotic cases, such as this one).

  17. #17 anonimouse
    January 18, 2007

    The radio station is far more at fault. This is no different, really, than a bartender continuing to serve a person who’s obviously had too much to drink – the radio station personnel were in a position to not put these people in this dangerous position in the first place, and then had a second opportunity to persaude contestants to drop out of the contest if they were to become ill. If they did either one of the two things above, there is a good chance this young woman would be alive today.

    Just because the victim may or may not have had the common sense to not participate in the contest does not absolve the radio station of their responsibility. If this contest was “take rat poison until you lapse into a coma for a Wii”, I don’t think we’d be having any discussion.

  18. #18 Patrick
    January 18, 2007

    This contest was stupid and dangerous and they knew it. They did not tell the contestants (so far as we know) that they were putting their lives at risk. Radio stations have an air of authority and it’s not out of the ordinary to think that the station did due dilligence and researched the contest. Water intoxication is not something that everyone is familiar with, water to most people is harmless and the more you drink the better. The burden was on the station to tell the people this was dangerous, or better yet, not do it. The woman should have stopped sooner, or been more skeptical about doing something that your body is clearly not set upto do, and she bears some of the fault for sure. She more or less killed herself but definately had some help. I feel for her kids.

    I think a criminal prosecution under manslaughter should be attempted along with any incoming civil suits.

  19. #19 Brian
    January 18, 2007

    I’d say Orac got it just right in the post, as many of the commenters seem to agree. I can see criminal prosecution going either way, simply depending on who the prosecutor is in this county. My vote would be to prosecute, in line with our coroner friend above. After all, the radio staff had a second chance to avert disaster simply by calling an ambulance or hospital before they sent the young woman home, and they didn’t even manage that.

    And I’d also like to know what one does to treat this. Can one just injest some salt? Or is there still danger in the low levels of calcium, magnesium, etc.? Simmer and reduce some Gatorade to syrup?? Or can this not be treated from one’s kitchen at home..?

  20. #20 Brian
    January 18, 2007

    Found this on Rice University’s SportsMed Web – advice for endurance athletes:

    “In summary, eating salty foods, is a very safe, effective treatment and preventive strategy for exercise associated hyponatremia.”

    Not sure that this would have been enough to save Ms. Strange, but the thought that a bag of pretzles is all that stood between her and survival makes the pathos all the harder to bear.

  21. #21 Shenda
    January 18, 2007

    About 7 years ago, my ex-wife went on a New Age “Purification Regime” that involved drinking a lot of water to “purge” herself. One night I had to take her to the hospital because she was dizzy, could not stand up on her own and felt she was about to die. The doctors at the emergency room treated it as a panic attack. It was not until the next day that I asked her how much water she drank the day before. It turns out that she had probably drunk about 2-3 gallons in an 8 hour period (she weighed about 98 lbs.). While not positive, we were both pretty sure that that had something to do with her being ill. Fortunately, that ended that bit of new age drivel. Unfortunately, she went on to other new age bs. (And yes, that is a major reason we are no longer together).

    The doctors never asked her about how much water she had drunk, even though she had to go to the bathroom repeatedly while she was at the hospital. I wonder if they were ever trained about water toxicity.

    I also suspect that if you asked people who had not heard about the incident at the radio station if drinking too much water could kill you, most would answer No. While ignorance is not an excuse, it is very often a reason.

  22. #22 idlemind
    January 18, 2007

    Since it appears that she assumed that the only risk was additional discomfort before she’s be able to pee it all out, I don’t that her offer to consume more really makes he any more responsible for the outcome. Especially given that she already complained of being light-headed, and thus not thinking clearly.

  23. #23 Jan P
    January 19, 2007

    I almost did this to myself once. I was about 13 years old, maybe 14. I was overweight when I was a kid. My cousins told me it was because I didn’t drink enough water. My mom also used to get upset with me for thining I didn’t drink enough water.

    One day I decided I would go on a water diet and I drank a gallon in a very short time. Then I drank another large glass. I can honestly say it was the sickest I ever was. My head started feeling like it would blow up. It felt like my blood pressure was as high as it could go. BUT, no one told me I couldn’t urinate. I guess if I coudln’t have done that I might have killed myself. Either way I decided being heavy was a better option than making myself that sick again.

    Over the years when I have repeated that story most people have doubted that it was actually the water that made me so ill but I knew that it was.

    I think this radio station should definitely be prosecuted.

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