Strange But True: Wrongful Death Cases from Water Overdose

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Last week, we kicked off our “Strange But True” series with a blog post about wrongful death cases that have resulted from caffeine overdose.  While we seldom if ever seriously consider the dangers of excessive caffeine, we at least understand how it might feasibly occur.  After all, caffeine does produce a noticeable “buzz,” and effects everything from our metabolism to our attention spans.  But what about water?

To think of water as a substance which could lead to overdose seems preposterous at first. After all, doctors are always scolding us for not drinking enough of it, and the fact that “our bodies are 75% water” is one of the most famous statistics.  The surface of our own planet, aptly nicknamed “the blue planet,” is 71% water.  Everyone knows that while a human can go for weeks without food, a few measly days without water will kill us. All we ever hear about water is that it’s indispensable to life, vital for health, and you can never get enough of the stuff.  In reality, that isn’t the case — and in this installment of “Strange But True,” our wrongful death attorneys examine how water overdose can kill.

How Much Water Should You Drink?

Water is a chemical compound made from two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, hence “H2O.”  From irrigating crops, to helping create energy, to hydrating humans and livestock the world over, water is vital to virtually all aspects of daily life on earth. Without water, the world’s food supply would wither, the industrial giants would crumble, and life as we know it would grind to a parched, wind-swept halt.

Not only does water power industry, it is an industry.  According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, U.S. sales of bottled water have climbed almost steadily since 1975.  Except for a few minor dips, America’s bottled water consumption has been increasing like clockwork for nearly 40 years. In 1975, Americans consumed fewer than five gallons of water per year.  By 2012, that number had increased by six times, skyrocketing to nearly 30 gallons per year.  Dasani, Poland Spring, Evian, Fiji, Deer Park, Aquafina, Volvic — the options for consumers stretch to infinity.

Part of water’s success as a product is the simple fact that everyone needs it to live.  Of course, many consumers choose to drink from the tap, but one way or another, you’ve got to meet your body’s physical requirements.

What are those requirements?  The traditional standard has been eight 8 ounce glasses per day, though there’s no unanimous agreement within the medical community. According to the Institute of Medicine, the appropriate daily intake is three liters for men, and 2.2 liters for women.  (The old eight-by-eight rule totals up to roughly 1.9 liters per day.)  The Food and Nutrition Board disagrees, saying the numbers are actually 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for women.

In any case, the results of what happens when you don’t get enough water are clear. Dehydration can cause negative health effects like headaches, constipation, low blood pressure, lethargy, and increased heart rate.  In extreme cases, dehydration can kill.

But so can excessive hydration.

“Hold Your Wee for a Wii” Radio Contest Kills California Woman

In early 2007, Nintendo’s Wii video game system was one of the hottest consoles on the market.  Sacramento, California-based radio station “The End” KDND 107.9 took notice of the Wii’s burgeoning popularity, and decided offering a Wii as a prize in a contest would be a great way to drum up some buzz.  The only catch was that the rules of the contest were… somewhat strange.  The person who could drink the most water without urinating would be dubbed the winner, and would receive a brand-new, $250-valued Wii for their efforts.  The contest was named “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.”

28-year-old listener Jennifer Strange heard about the contest, and decided she would enter.  She was a mother of three, and thought a new console would be a fun present for her oldest son.

At 6:15 A.M. on the morning of January 12, 2007, Strange arrived at KDND in chilly winter darkness, and was led to the station room where the contest would take place. She was one of roughly 20 hopefuls competing in the event.  The rules were simple. Every 15 minutes, contestants were given increasingly large bottles of water to drink. Whoever could go the longest without running to a bathroom would be declared the winner.

As the time dragged on, Strange consumed greater and greater quantities of water, sticking it out longer than almost anyone else.  She eventually dropped out after three hours had passed, placing in a close second.  After forfeiting the event, Strange left the station, and began to drive home.

The station had given her a pair of Justin Timberlake concert tickets as a second place prize; but the tickets would never be used.

On her return drive, Strange called her coworkers at the Radiological Associates of Sacramento in tears.  “She said to one of our supervisors that she was on her way home and her head was hurting her real bad.  She was crying,”  recalls colleague Lora Rios, “and that was the last that anyone had heard from her.”

How Does Drinking Too Much Water Kill?

Jennifer Strange consumed roughly two gallons of water over a three-hour timespan. There are 16 eight ounce servings of water in one gallon — already twice the popular eight-by-eight recommendation.  Two gallons totals up to 32 glasses of water.  That means Strange ingested four times the recommended daily intake of water, all in the span of just three hours.

But why is excessive water consumption harmful?

The technical term for drinking too much water is water intoxication, also known as water poisoning, also known as dilutional hyponatremia.  Hyponatremia is a compound word built out of hypo, meaning under or below, and natrium, meaning sodium. Translation: not enough salt.

When a person drinks too much water, their blood becomes diluted.  When the blood is flooded with water, the kidneys, which act like filters, can’t keep up with the rush of excess fluid.  This means the blood supply becomes “backed up” with extra water, which causes water to leak from the blood and into surrounding cells.  When water leaks into brain cells, the brain swells.  However, because the brain is trapped by the tight confines of the skull, there is no room for expansion.  This puts an extremely high amount of pressure on the swollen brain, which can lead to seizure, coma, and even death.  It also explains why Strange was complaining of an excruciating headache in the hours before her death.

 

Water Poisoning Leads to Wrongful Death Lawsuit

While the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest was playing out during the early hours of January 12, some KDND listeners called in to the station to voice their concerns.   One even warned that the stunt could cost a life.

“We’re aware of that,” a station DJ responded.

When a woman called in from Chico, California, DJs said, “They signed releases.  It’s not our problem.”

After an alarmed nurse called in with yet another warning, the host laughed, shouting back to the contest room, “Is anyone dying in there?”

At 3 P.M., just nine hours after she first arrived outside of KDND, Jennifer Strange was discovered dead in her living room by her mother.  Her injured brain was 8% heavier than it should have been.

The fallout was immediate, and media coverage was scathing.  Ten station employees were immediately fired, including contest creators Lukas Cox and Steve Maney.  The show which had featured the contest, The Morning Rave, was yanked from rotation, and all mentions of the Rave were erased from KDND’s digital annals.

In spite of the controversy surrounding Strange’s death, the Sacramento Police were not initially heavily involved in the case.  A spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department stated, “It was a contest and people are saying there was no coercion.” Because Strange had voluntarily entered the contest — along with over a dozen others, all of whom had survived — culpability for the tragedy seemed uncertain.  Was Strange to blame for her own, consenting actions, or had KDND acted recklessly?

Over the course of the following week, opinion shifted within the Sacramento PD.  On January 17, Sheriff John McGinness called for Sacramento detectives to investigate whether or not the case could be ruled a homicide.  The following day, Strange’s bereft family announced they had hired attorneys Roger A. Dreyer and Harvey Levine to represent them as plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit they planned to file against Entercom Communications Corporation, KDND’s parent company.  By the end of January, even the FCC had gotten involved.

By the fall of 2009, the trial was finally underway.  The case of William A. Strange et al. v. Entercom Sacramento LLC et al. was presided over by Superior Court Judge Lloyd A. Phillips, and lasted for a total of 45 days.  After two years of preparation and a month and a half of litigation, Judge Phillips delivered the final verdict at last: Entercom Sacramento LLC was ordered to pay the Strange family over $16.5 million in damages.  Judge Phillips ruled that the fault in Strange’s death lay 100% with Entercom and 0% with Strange herself, eliminating any claims of contributory negligence.

The Strange family still struggles to cope with the loss of a wife and mother.  Billy Strange says he is taking the loss “one step at a time.”

If you or a loved one has been hurt by the negligence of another party, you may be able to seek damages.  To speak with an experienced personal injury attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.  Our consultations are always guaranteed to be completely confidential, and your initial case evaluation is free. 

 

 

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