Contests are designed to increase public awareness of a business or organization. Increase it in a positive way. That objective goes horribly awry if a contestant gets seriously injured or dies.

Eating Contest Tragedy in Albuquerque

That is unfortunately what happened at an Albuquerque nightclub-sponsored speed-eating contest. The contest tested who could eat a corn dog hotdog the fastest. Contestant, Debra Harbeck, choked while competing and, as a result, died a few days later from complications. Harbeck’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the club and others connected to the property and its liquor license

Takeaways for Companies Sponsoring Promotions

Implement Common Sense. Where the contest activity is inherently dangerous, perhaps the sponsor should choose an alternate activity. As an example, drinking excessive amounts of water can lead to water intoxication which can result in death. A Sacramento radio station’s ignorance or disregard of that fact resulted in a nearly $16.6 Million jury award against the station after a woman died while participating in the station’s water-drinking “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest.

If the activity is risky, at a minimum, the sponsor should be alert to and avoid conditions that increase the danger. For example, the sponsor of a speed-eating contest should prohibit inebriated people from participating as intoxication increases the risk of choking. According to the Harbeck complaint, Debra Harbeck’s blood alcohol level was between 0.13 and 0.14 percent as a result of being served three double shots and four double gin and tonics at the club immediately prior to the contest.

Tailor Official Rules to the Promotion. There are multiple reasons for a promotion sponsor to use written official rules. One (potentially more cynical) benefit is that if the worst happens, official rules can mandate arbitration where a sponsor might be less likely to be hit with a multi-million dollar jury verdict.Preparing official rules should not be a “cut and paste” job. Each promotion is unique and has its own challenges. Obviously, there are many considerations for an eating contest that do not apply to a best photo contest or dog contest or golf tournament or chess competition such as

  • whether participants may use utensils
  • whether a contestant who suffers what I’ll kindly refer to as a “reversal of fortune” is disqualified
  • whether professional eaters may enter
  • whether contestants may drink water during the eating contest

Use a Disclaimer and Waiver. If the contest involves a potentially risky activity, the sponsor should issue a disclaimer stating those potential risks and a waiver in which contestants acknowledge and expressly assume the risks.