Entercom pays out $16.57 million

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Posted by Bye Bye Christmas Bonus on October 30, 2009 at 17:15:01:

Jury awards $16.57 million to radio contestant's survivors

By Andy Furillo, Sacramento Bee

Published: Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 - 11:28 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 - 5:47 pm

A Sacramento Superior Court jury today awarded the survivors of Jennifer Lea Strange $16,577,118 as a result of her death nearly three years ago in a water-drinking contest conducted by a local radio station.

In making the award, the seven-man, five-woman panel voted unanimously to find that Entercom Sacramento LLC, the local subsidiary of Entercom Communications Corp. of Philadelphia was negligent in putting on the contest that ultimately resulted in Strange's death.

The jury, also unanimously, exonerated the parent company.

Jurors also voted 10-2 that there was no contributory negligence on Strange's part.

"I'm very thankful and appreciative that the jurors took their time and that they held the appropriate people accountable," Jennifer Strange's widower, Billy Strange, told reporters after the verdict was read.

Roger A. Dreyer, the attorney who represented Billy Strange and the two young children he had with Jennifer Strange, said the verdict will send a message to media outlets nationwide.

"This is a very powerful verdict that's gong to resonate across the country to the media," Dreyer said. "Every single radio station is going to understand what happened today. I don't know about you, but the size of the number is a pretty substantial sum. They're going to pay attention to it.

"I'm confident we're going to see how they administer everything across the board on contests. That's what this jury has done, more than anything," Dreyer added.

Charles Sipkins, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for Entercom, called the woman's death "a tragedy."

"Our hearts go out to all of her loved ones, including, in particular, her husband and children," Sipkins said in an e-mailed statement.

"While legal restrictions preclude is from commenting further, we respect the jury's decision and hope that it will assist the Strange family in coping with its loss."

Juror La Teisha Paggett said the verdict should send a message that "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."

Tammy Elliott, another juror on the panel, said the evidence against Entercom Sacramento was "overwhelming."

The Sacramento subsidiary, she said, "had not followed their rules and guidelines that were set not only by Sacramento Entercom but the parent company. 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."

In breaking down the plaintiffs' award, the jurors voted 10-2 to give the survivors' $1,477,118 in economic damages related to Jennifer Strange's future earnings potential and 9-3 to present them with another $15.1 million in non-economic damages for the loss of her love, companionship and support.

Elliott said the jury deliberations were "very" heated when it came to the issue of the non-economic damages. She said the individual panel members were "all over the board on numbers." She said the final amount represented an average of figures that each juror came up with on their own.

Plaintiffs lawyers had asked the jury for an award for economic and non-economic damages in a range of $34 million to $44.3 million.

Strange, 28, died Jan. 12, 2007, after participating in what KDND "The End" 107.9 promoted as its "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest that promised the popular Nintendo video game to whomever could drink the most water without urinating or vomiting.

The Sacramento County Coroner's Office determined that she died of acute water intoxication. The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department investigated the case to see if it was a homicide, but no criminal charges were filed.

Plaintiffs attorneys filed the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of her husband, William Strange, individually and as guardian of their two young children, Ryland, 6, and Jorie, 3; and Ronald Sims, the father and guardian of the woman's oldest son, Keegan, 13. The plaintiffs charged that the defendants were negligent in holding the contest.

Defense attorneys countered that Strange's death was unforeseeable and that if there was any liability on the part of the Entercom defendants, it had to be offset by the woman's own "contributory negligence."

Forty-one witnesses testified and lawyers entered 192 exhibits into evidence in the trial that began on Sept. 8 with jury selection.

To prove their case, plaintiffs attorneys Roger A. Dreyer and Harvey R. Levine needed to demonstrate that KDND's "Morning Rave" on-air talent and the station's managers acted negligently within the course and scope of their employment at Entercom Sacramento in putting on the contest and that it caused harm to Jennifer Strange.

The plaintiffs lawyers played tapes of the "Morning Rave" show the day of the contest, where the disc jockeys made fun about contestants throwing up and about the possibility of somebody dying from drinking too much water. The jokes continued even after the DJs received several calls - including some they played on the air - from listeners who expressed concerns that drinking too much water could be dangerous, plaintiffs argued.

Station manager Steve Weed and Entercom's top official in Sacramento, John Geary, both had received complaints ahead of time about the behavior and antics of the "Morning Rave" crew from KDND promotions director Robin Pechota, the plaintiffs argued. But management failed to rein in the DJs, the lawyers said.

Although the antics of the DJs held the potential to expose Entercom Sacramento to liability, Judge Lloyd A. Phillips instructed the jury that Entercom Communications Corp. could not be found negligent for the actions of its subsidiary employees "merely by reason of ownership or control."

The lawyers for Strange's survivors asked jurors to establish the connection of liability to the parent corporation through what the plaintiffs viewed as a lack of training the subsidiary's managers received from Entercom Communication Corp.'s legal team in Boston. The plaintiffs lawyers argued that the corporate lawyers never educated or clearly communicated to the Sacramento managers the company's policies barring contests that were dangerous, in bad taste, or that reflected poorly on the morals and ethics of the company, and that the word in turn then never filtered down to the on-air talent.

Steve Maney, one of the DJs on KDND's morning show, testified that neither Geary, Weed or Pechota ever talked to any of the "Morning Rave" crew about contest guidelines.

"We were never told what the rules were," said Maney, who described himself to the jury as the morning crew's in-house "jackass."

Entercom's lawyers countered that its legal staff adequately trained Pechota and Weed on contest guidelines but that the Sacramento radio station officials then improperly used their own discretion in allowing a contest to go forward that did not comply with the company's policies.

"It wasn't a failure to get the message," Entercom attorney Donald W. Carlson said in his closing argument. "They all knew it."

The decision by the Sacramento managers to give a green light to the contest, as well as the behavior by the morning DJs during the course of the show, all tied in back to the main defense theme of the case, Carlson said - that nobody who worked for the station thought that drinking too much water could cause harm.

Carlson called only four witnesses in his one-day defense of Entercom. Two of them were contest participants who testified that they didn't think the contest was dangerous and that they felt free to drop out at any time.

The defense lawyer said that the contest came down to "a matter of personal choice" on who wanted to enter, and that Jennifer Strange had to bear a portion of her own "contributory negligence" that had to be factored into the jury's decision. She saw other people throwing up during the contest, Carlson said, and therefore knew there was a possibility of harm.

The case went to the jury Oct. 15 after attorneys for both sides concluded their closing arguments and the panel deliberated over nine court days before returning its verdict today.

During the course of their deliberations, jurors asked the judge for a definition on "scope of employment," a key issue in determining liability for the Entercom defendants based on the actions of their employees.

Jurors also asked for readbacks on the testimony of Geary, Weed, Pechota and the company's attorneys John Donlevie and Carmela Masi.

The jury also asked for an Excel computer program, a request that Phillips denied, although the judge did agree to provide the panel with a 10-digit adding machine.

In its final request last Friday, the jury was allowed to listen to all the audio on KDND in which Jennifer Strange was talking to the station's on-air talent.

The jury had no requests for readbacks or clarification questions this week.

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