A Sacramento jury set an eye-popping standard Thursday on the cost of radio station contests that kill and the resulting loss of a mother’s love and a wife’s companionship.
The tab for Entercom Sacramento LLC came to $16,577,118 in the water-intoxication death of Jennifer Lea Strange in a contest put on by radio station KDND “The End” (107.9 FM).
Such was the award rendered by a Sacramento Superior Court jury in the trial to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Strange’s survivors. The 28-year-old woman died Jan. 12, 2007, after she participated in KDND’s “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest.
“I think the message of the verdict is these stations need to be more cognizant of what they’re doing and they need to take the time to do the research to make sure no one’s harmed,” juror La Teshia Paggett said in an interview after the panel concluded nine days of deliberations with Thursday’s eight-figure award.
Juror Tammy Elliott, echoing the closing arguments of plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the evidence against the Sacramento subsidiary of the Philadelphia-based Entercom Communications Corp. was “overwhelming” in the trial that began Sept. 8 and featured testimony from 41 witnesses.
Entercom Sacramento, she said, failed to follow the parent company’s guidelines in its contest promising the video game for the participant who drank the most water without urinating or vomiting.
“And if it had been done, I don’t think this contest would have gone on, or if it did, it would have went on with medical personnel and it would have been put on in a safe way,” Elliott said.
The jury voted unanimously to hold Entercom Sacramento negligent and found that its negligence harmed Strange.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Roger A. Dreyer said he believes it was the largest wrongful death award ever presented by a jury in Sacramento.
Billy Strange and Ronald Sims sat in a row of seats behind the lawyers’ table in Judge Lloyd A. Phillips’ courtroom. Jennifer Strange’s mother, Nina Louise Hulst, and her husband, Mark, accompanied them into the courtroom and sat in the audience.
The four portrayed a sense of subdued relief afterward.
“I’m very thankful and appreciative that the jurors took their time and that they held the appropriate people accountable,” Billy Strange said.
A Los Angeles-based spokesman for Entercom called Strange’s death a “tragedy” and said in an e-mailed statement that “our hearts go out to all of her loved ones, including in particular, her husband and children.”
Dreyer and co-counsel Harvey R. Levine, who represented the Sims plaintiffs, sought to make the case a statement about the lengths radio stations will go to obtain a ratings edge by promoting potentially dangerous contests.
“This is a very powerful verdict that’s going to resonate across the country to the media,” Dreyer said. “Every single radio station is going to understand what happened today.”
If there was a turning point in the trial, it may have come through the repeated displays by the plaintiffs on a courtroom projector of photographs of Jennifer Strange with her children.
As they showed a younger Keegan Sims locked in the glance of his mother in her wedding dress on the day she married Billy Strange, Paggett and others on the panel wept openly.
“It was difficult,” Paggett said. “I’m a mother, so I thought what it would be like if my son was left without me.”
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