Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Earlier this week, a woman who was a contestant (for a Nintendo Wii) in a water-drinking contest died, ostensibly of water intoxication. There has been a lot of debate in the comments as to whether the radio station was culpuable and should be sued.

Well, as reported today on Yahoo, the radio station fired the three disc jockeys as well as seven other employees who took part in the contest.The radio show was suspended, and the station has announced an investigation into the exact circumstances of Jennifer Strange’s death. It was also revealed that the amount of water that she drank was in excess of two gallons.

2 gallons = 256 ounces. She had to drink 8 ounces every 15 minutes. She drank 32 8oz bottles, although some of the bottles got much bigger as the contest wore on.

However, the county sherrif said it was not investigating, so I’m assuming there was not deemed to be any criminal negligence worthy of prosecution. I was wondering (if there’s any lawyers out there), if the radio station could be held liable in a civil court for damages, although have no criminal negligence?

UPDATE: From the Sacramento Bee:

Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, alarmed by audio recordings obtained by The Bee of the radio show contest that may have led to the death of 28-year-old Jennifer Lea Strange, has directed homicide detectives to look into whether a crime was committed during the water-drinking contest sponsored by the “Morning Rave” show on The End radio station (KDND, 107.9).

(Further updates below the fold)

McGinness has said previously that he did not believe a criminal case is warranted because Strange took part in the contest of her own free will. However, after The Bee obtained a recording of the four-hour, 40-minute radio show that showed radio hosts discussing the possible dangers of the contest on air the sheriff said he believes a closer look is warranted and that his detectives will investigate. McGinness said there is the potential for a manslaughter charge if investigators find radio hosts did not render aid to Strange. McGinnis said he is meeting with District Attorney Jan Scully’s office, also.

Also, she placed SECOND in the contest.

From CNN:

In an online recording of the show, the DJs can be heard making comments joking about people dying from water intoxication, even discussing a case in Northern California two years ago in which student Matthew Carrington, 21, died after drinking too much water during a fraternity stunt.

One of the DJs even admitted they maybe should have done some research before the contest.

One female caller, who identified herself as Eva, also phoned in to warn the radio station that drinking too much water can kill.

Comments

  1. #1 John C. Welch
    January 17, 2007

    that’s what happened to O.J.

    Not Guilty in criminal court, found liable in civil court.

  2. #2 Roy
    January 17, 2007

    John beat me to it. Potentially, the family could bring a Wrongful Death case to civil court. In civil law, the standard for proof is a “preponderance of the evidence.”
    In general, a wrongful death case must meet at least four qualifications:
    1. The death was caused, in whole or part, by the conduct of the defendant
    2. The defendant was negligent or strictly liable for the victim?s death
    3. There is a surviving spouse, children, beneficiaries or dependents
    4. Damages have resulted from the victim?s death (financial, social, emotional).

  3. #3 Shelley
    January 17, 2007

    So, would the award be smaller because the defendent wasn’t criminally negligent?

  4. #4 steve
    January 17, 2007

    well what does criminally negligent actually mean?

  5. #5 Shelley
    January 17, 2007

    Well, the way I was using it was more like “found guilty.” As John and Roy pointed out, someone can be found ‘innocent’ yet still get slammed in a civil lawsuit.

  6. #6 Orac
    January 17, 2007

    Actually, in cases like this, the liability for the woman’s death would likely be divided. For example, the jury may find that the radio station is 75% responsible and Strange was 25% responsible, the reason being that the woman does share part of the blame for entering a contest like this and persisting in it. What would then happen is that civil damages, if any, would be apportioned that way, and of whatever damages were awarded the plaintiffs (the family) would receive only 75% (or whatever other percent liable the jury finds the radio station).

    I’ve been involved in a heated discussion on a mailing list in which those saying the woman brought it on herself and should be given a Darwin Award seem to think that it’s an all-or-nothing decision. That the woman does bear some responsibility does not absolve the radio station for its reckless disregard for the safety of its contestants. I saw another article where it was claimed that a nurse called in to the station while the contest was going on and tried to warn them that it could be dangerous. I don’t recall where the link was.

  7. #7 Michele
    January 17, 2007

    The Sacramento Bee has a story up that says homicide detectives are reviewing whether a crime has been committed.

    From the Bee:
    McGinness has said previously that he did not believe a criminal case is warranted because Strange took part in the contest of her own free will. However, after The Bee obtained a recording of the four-hour, 40-minute radio show that showed radio hosts discussing the possible dangers of the contest on air the sheriff said he believes a closer look is warranted and that his detectives will investigate. McGinness said there is the potential for a manslaughter charge if investigators find radio hosts did not render aid to Strange. McGinnis said he is meeting with District Attorney Jan Scully’s office, also.

  8. #8 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 17, 2007

    I’ve been involved in a heated discussion on a mailing list in which those saying the woman brought it on herself and should be given a Darwin Award seem to think that it’s an all-or-nothing decision.

    Too late on the Darwin Award. She’s already reproduced, so she’s ineligible. Maybe an Honorable Mention.

  9. #9 Shelley
    January 17, 2007

    Thanks for the update Michele. I included that story in my post.

  10. #10 dukkillr
    January 17, 2007

    The proportions thing mentioned above depends on state law. I’m an attorney but not familiar with California’s law on contributing negligence. Some states require the Defendant to be more than 50%, some 49%, some 100%, and some any percent can be apportioned. Also realize that the precentages can be assigned to the various defendants.

    The lack of a criminal case will have nothing to do with the damages.

  11. #11 Ben Schwartz
    January 18, 2007

    dukkillr:

    The rule in California is comparative neglegence, not contributory neglegence. Thus, a defendant may be less than 50% at fault, and still incur liability. California law students learn this in 1st year torts class.

    On the side, I live in Davis, CA, a mere 15 miles from Sacramento. As noted in the CNN article, a college student died from water intoxication just a few years ago not far from here, making big news in this area. How the DJs could be so careless is beyond me. Unfortunately it takes tragic circumstances like this to raise awareness.

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