Relatively uninhibited philosophizings on self and kosmos whenever the mood strikes...
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Lessons Learned From a Tragic Death
Last Friday, a Sacramento radio station held an early-morning contest in which 20 people off the street competed to see who could drink the most water over several hours without going to the bathroom or throwing up. The grand prize was a new Nintendo video game called the Wii. I don't listen to this station or play video games. The reason I'm writing about this is that one of the contestants died later as the apparent result of acute "water intoxication," and ten employees of the radio station were fired in the aftermath. The contestant was Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three. She drank nearly two gallons of water in less than four hours before giving up after complaining that she had a headache and felt light-headed. She drove home, calling in sick to work along the way, and was found dead at home by her mother several hours later. The fired employees were the five on-air personalities from the show and supporting staff.
The Sacramento County sheriff announced that he lacked cause to conduct a criminal investigation of the incident. "It's not as if [Ms Strange] was somehow in their custody and they had a role to care for her," he said. "Rather, it was an invitation to a contest that was clearly ill-advised. She was exercising her free will." I'm not a lawyer and don't really know what the law has to say about the issue of criminal negligence, but I suspect that the sheriff is right so far as possible criminal prosecution is concerned. A lawsuit in the civil court may be an entirely different matter, and a personal injury attorney commenting on the case has already said as much. No one forced Ms. Strange to drink all that water, and she even signed a waiver absolving the radio station of all responsibility for whatever happened, but I can well imagine a slick civil lawyer making a persuasive case that those radio station employees not only should have known about the perils of water intoxication but actually did know about them and said as much on the air during the contest,and that it was, therefore, their responsibility not to put people in harm's way. At the very least, they should have made sure that all the contestants were fully apprised of the risk they were taking on.
Along with the issue of legal responsibility, I have questions about moral responsibility and about whether the ten radio staff involved in this unfortunate affair have been treated fairly. I have mixed thoughts and emotions about all of this. Let me begin by saying it's a terrible tragedy that this mother of three young children who put herself through the ordeal of the contest in order to win an expensive video game system for her children died from her efforts. Yet, having said this, it seems to me that too many people are too quick to blame others for their own foolish actions and that this growing shift of responsibility for one's actions from oneself onto others may not be such a good thing for our society. On the other hand, I recognize the psychological reality that people are naturally inclined to place their trust in authority figures. For Jennifer Strange, those radio personalities were probably people she trusted to know that the contest they were sponsoring was unlikely to present any serious threat to her health. Should she have trusted them? Obviously not. But people foolishly exhibit such trust frequently, and this should be taken into account whenever we contemplate involving others in dangerous activities.
I don't want to write a philosophical tome on the subject. I'll just say that, based on my admittedly limited understanding of the facts of the case and of all the legal principles and issues involved, I'm inclined to believe that there should be no criminal prosecution in this case, that if a civil suit is brought forth (as it almost certainly will be) it should fail (even though it probably won't), and that the radio station was justified in firing at least the five participating on-air personalities (although I'm not sure about the other staff members) involved with the show in question. In any case, I hope this tragedy makes people less inclined to participate in dangerous activities under the auspices of individuals or institutions they shouldn't necessarily trust just because they happen to hold positions of authority or public prominence, and that it also makes those who hold these positions more circumspect about sponsoring activities in which an impressionable public can place themselves in harm's way.