No Charges Filed in Death of Radio Contestant, Civil Suit Pending

The district attorney of Sacramento County, California, has decided not to file criminal charges in the case of a 28-year-old woman who died as a result of water intoxication following an on-air radio-station contest. However, the attorney representing the victim’s family announced his plans to move forward with a civil wrongful-death suit, claiming the station’s negligence led to the victim’s death.

Jennifer Strange, a mother of three, had participated in a contest, run by The End (KDND, 107.9 FM) in Sacramento, called “Hold Your Wee for a Wii,” in which the winner was to receive a Nintendo Wii video-game system. Participants were asked to drink copious amounts of water during a three-hour period without going to the bathroom, and the contestant who drank the most water without relieving himself or herself would be ruled the winner.

Hours after the contest, during which she consumed nearly two gallons of water, Strange died of water intoxication, a known medical condition that occurs when sodium levels in the blood fall too low (hyponatremia) and can lead to headaches, vomiting, brain swelling, coma, and death. Ten KDND employees, five on-air personalities and five support staff were fired in the immediate aftermath of Strange’s death.

In announcing the decision, Sacramento County DA Jan Scully noted that the contestant participated voluntarily and showed no obvious signs of any medical danger. Yet, radio-station staff members were apparently aware of the potential risks of water intoxication; in fact, one listener, who identified herself as a nurse, called in during the contest to warn the station of the possibility of water intoxication. Strange even complained of headaches and lightheadedness during the program. On-air personalities made jokes about people “dying in there,” and one DJ said on the air that perhaps they should have “researched this.”

Attorney Roger Dreyer now plans to move forward with a wrongful death suit against KDND, its parent company, Entercom Communications, and eight KDND employees who worked on the Morning Rave show (all of whom have already been fired). According to the suit, “[A]t no time before the contest did the decedent sign a release of liability contractually relieving any Defendants of their duty of care in organizing and running the contest.” Furthermore, “At all times, it was foreseeable to Defendants and each of them that the contestants were at risk for serious illness and/or death as the result of consuming extensive amounts of water in a relatively short period of time. At all relevant times preceding the contest, Defendants were aware that consumption of water to such an extent could result in physical injury or death.”

In addition, the suit claims that “Defendants had specific knowledge of a relatively recent fraternity hazing incident in Northern California as a result of which a young man died from over-consumption of water. Defendants were specifically informed before and/or during the contest that the contestants were subject to the risk of serious illness and/or death as a result of their participation.”

The suit also faults the defendants for failing to consult with medical professionals before or during the contest. Plaintiff attorney Dreyer had no problem with the DA’s decision not to press charges, telling the Sacramento Bee, “We never felt that the acts of the individuals rose to the level of criminal acts or criminal intent. In fact, it simply validates our viewpoint that the responsible parties in this case are Entercom management.” Dreyer also wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in an attempt to have the station’s license revoked, citing the station’s “wanton disregard” for the participants’ health, but the FCC has not taken any action.

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