Victims’ Families Get Big Settlement in Self-Help Sweat Lodge Deaths
A self-proclaimed self-help guru paid over $3 million to settle suits stemming from the deaths of three people during a “Spiritual Warrior” sweat-lodge ceremony, reminding venue and event hosts they can be held responsible both criminally and civilly for their guests’ safety.
- James Arthur Ray negligent in deaths of three people during sweat lodge ceremony
- Sentenced to two years in jail, settled civil suit for $3 million
- Waivers no protection against civil suits
James Arthur Ray, author of such self-help tomes as “Harmonic Wealth,” “Live Wired and Inspired” and “Million Dollar Mindset,” saw his carefully crafted guru image collapse in October 2009 when three people died during a sweat at one of his self-help events.
Clients signed up for Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, aimed to “help participants overcome adversity to reach their full potential.” For $10,000 a head, guests would spend five days with Ray, fasting and seeking visions in the woods. But disaster struck when Kirby Brown, 38, James Shore, 40 and Liz Neuman, 49, all died after being exposed to excessive heat during the sweat lodge ceremony that culminated the retreat. At least 20 others were hospitalized.
Ray was sentenced in November to a two-year prison term for three negligent homicide convictions (Lawyers.com previously covered the conviction here). Documents disclosed as part of his criminal case show he previously paid out over $3 million to the victim’s families to settle wrongful death and negligence suits.
Negligence Caused Safety Hazards
“Damages in Arizona for wrongful death belong to survivors—parents, spouses and children of deceased. Each have a claim for their own anguish and loss of love and companionship,” says Stan Marks, a senior member of Phoenix law firm Begam & Marks. Arizona has no cap for non-economic damages like some other states. “It’s up to the jury to determine what a person has lost when they lose a loved one,” Marks says.
As the host of the retreat, Ray was responsible for keeping his clients out of danger. “A person who has guests has the duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of their guests,” says Marks. While what exactly constitutes reasonable care is up to the jury, in this case, the conditions for the sweat appear reckless or worse.
Employees said vomiting and passing out during ceremonies was the norm, and Ray urged them to ignore the warning signs as standard responses to the heat. He also used plastic to build the sweat lodge instead of safer breathable material, and packed dozens of people inside the lodge at once, far surpassing the eight to 12 or so who usually participate in traditional Native American sweats.
While Ray had his clients sign waivers acknowledging the possibility of injury or death, such documents usually don’t hold up in litigation, Marks says. “In civil matters, waivers are not treated kindly by courts,” he explains. “You still can’t subject people to danger, even if they’re signing a waiver that exculpates you to all penalties.”
Prior to 2009, Ray’s business brought in an estimated $10 million annually, part of the $11 billion self-help industry. Despite the deaths plus civil and criminal penalties, he doesn’t seem to be deterred from continuing to market himself. Self-help books and videos are still for sale on his web site, and after his sentencing his brother reportedly told news reporters, “this would give him the opportunity to help people in prison that need it.”
Sweat-Lovers Urged To Exercise Caution
The James Arthur Ray case isn’t the only recent steam-related death— Russian Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy died during the 2010 World Sauna Championships in Finland after collapsing in the 230-degree steam room.
In a Discovery News story following Ladyzhenskiy’s death, psychiatrist Richard Livingston laid out some recommendations for use of saunas and sweat lodges:
- Use certified saunas that can’t get hotter than 194°F.
- Take breaks.
- Drink water.
- Get out of there when you start feeling unwell.
- Avoid saunas if you are very old or young, pregnant, have a history of heat intolerance, or have any kind of condition that might affect your heart, including diabetes.
“Doing it to the point where you can’t do it anymore as an endurance test,” Livingston is quoted, “just doesn’t seem like all that great an idea to me.”
Aaron Kase is a news reporter for Lawyers.com.
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