Jennifer Strange’s death verdict puts radio stations on notice Friday, October 30, 2009
By J.G. Preston
A Sacramento jury has a message for radio stations across the country: don’t put on a contest that could kill somebody.
In a case that has received close attention from the radio industry, a Sacramento Superior Court jury returned a verdict October 29 that found a radio station 100% liable in the death of a young woman who took part in a morning show water-drinking contest in 2007. The husband and three children of Jennifer Strange were awarded almost $1.5 million in economic damages and $15.1 million in non-economic damages in what is believed to be the largest wrongful-death award ever in Sacramento County. The jury made it clear it feels stations have a responsibility to ensure their contests are not hazardous to participants.
Roger Dreyer (below) was the attorney for Strange’s husband and the two children Jennifer Strange had with him.
Strange was 28 years old when she died of acute water intoxication after finishing as runner-up in Sacramento’s 107.9 KDND-FM’s “Hold Your Wee For a Wii” contest, in which the prize was a Nintendo Wii game system. The jury heard excerpts of the station’s broadcast during the contest, including comments by one of the hosts of the show before the competition began in which she said:
“Can’t you get water poisoning and die?”
She also said: “Maybe we should have researched this.”
The jury of seven men and five women were unanimous in finding Entercom-Sacramento negligent and voted 10-2 that Strange did not have contributory negligence. Defense attorney Donald Carlson of San Francisco had suggested non-economic damages of $2.7 million during the closing argument.
The jury did not find liability on the part of the parent company, Entercom Communications. The boasts on its web page that Forbes Magazine called it one of America’s “Most Trustworthy Companies.”
Strange was found dead in her home just a few hours after leaving the radio station. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, Dreyer and Harvey Levine, had an expert medical witness explain to the jury how Strange’s water consumption would have affected both her body and her mental acuity. She consumed nearly two gallons of water over about a three-hour period, and as a small woman she was even more vulnerable to harm as a result. The plaintiffs also called on a psychologist as an expert witness to discuss how being involved in a stressful, competitive situation can cause people to behave in ways that are not necessarily in their best interest.
Quite a bit of conversation about the case has focused on the victim’s “personal responsibility.” Shouldn’t she have known better? Wouldn’t her body tell her when she had drunk too much?
After listening to five weeks of testimony, and two weeks of deliberations, the jury decided Strange had the right to expect she wouldn’t be harmed by taking part in a radio station contest, and that the station had a responsibility to research the potential dangers before holding the contest. Various station personnel testified that the contest had not been submitted to the parent company’s legal department, as was required under company policy because it involved an “unusual method of winning.”
Numerous Entercom executives, including CEO David J. Field, whose father founded the company, testified the legal department would not have approved the contest because of the potential danger.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys also established that no effort was made by station personnel to research the potential danger, because no one involved thought it was possible to die from drinking water. But the morning show hosts had talked on-air about a Chico State University student who had died from recent water intoxication in a fraternity hazing incident. One of the hosts had himself suffered ill effects after drinking a large amount of water as a stunt two months before the contest.
Station officials had prepared written rules for the contest, but those rules were never shared with either the contestants or the hosts of the show. And when the contest began those rules were changed to increase the rate of water consumption, from one eight-ounce bottle every 15 minutes to one every 10 minutes. Then about two hours into the contest, the size of the bottles was increased from eight ounces to one-half liter (16.9 ounces).
After the verdict was announced, the few jurors who would talk about the case said the size of the non-economic damages award was a major sticking point in the protracted deliberations.
Jurors proposed awards ranging from nothing to more than $40 million. The juror who suggested giving nothing reasoned that it was wrong to try to put as price on love, support and the other elements of non-economic damages.
The jurors agreed to a compromise that left a number of them feeling the award was still either too low or too high. The size of the award was based on the fact that four family members were involved, each of whom lost the love and support of a wife or mother for about 50 years based on her estimated life expectancy.
Juror La Teshia Paggett said the verdict sent a message to radio stations about the safety of their contestants.
The verdict led one radio industry publication, Inside Radio, to tell station officials they need to be more careful in staging contests.
Communications attorney John Garziglia says the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest serves as a reminder for stations to be wary of contests where someone could hurt themselves. He advises stations . . . to be sure there’s adequate insurance coverage before the contest begins. Garziglia tells general managers to never trust programming personnel to make sure those things happen either. “There’s a reason for ‘management’ at your station,” he says.
The verdict in the Entercom Sacramento trial made it clear that lack of appropriate oversight by station management led to the death of Jennifer Strange.
When testimony began, John Geary, who is the manager responsible for all six of Entercom’s Sacramento stations, was himself a defendant along with his employer. While the trial was underway, but after he had testified, Geary was dropped from the case. After the verdict was read, Dreyer told the jury he felt Geary was personally accountable for Strange’s death as the executive in charge of the station. Dreyer said he decided as the trial unfolded the jury might get “distracted” by considering Geary as an individual defendant, but added, “I wanted him to sit. I wanted him to listen. I wanted him to hear everything that happened in this case.”
Geary is still Entercom’s market manager in Sacramento, but everyone associated with the morning show was fired the next business day after the contest, as were the KDND station manager and promotions director, both of whom were responsible for submitting contest proposals to the corporate legal department. The three primary hosts of the show are all still working on the air in morning radio, in Orlando, Memphis and Phoenix.