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Assessing Blame in Rashidi Wheeler's Death; Are Resorts Liable for Shark Attacks?

Aired August 20, 2001 - 12:30   ET



JAMES MONTGOMERY, FAMILY ATTORNEY: It's pretty clear that they delayed at least 25 minutes before accessing emergency medical care. And my reaction was that that was a long time to wait for someone who told the initial fellow athlete who pulled him off the turf that he was dying.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: death on the football field. A videotape reveals the last moments in the life of a Northwestern University athlete.



AVE MARIA THOMPSON, VICTIM'S WIFE: My husband, one of the first things he said to me when they removed the ventilator was that he was screaming and they wouldn't come. He had to swim to them. I am so hurt.


COSSACK: Swim at your own risk: Are sharks reclaiming their natural habitat? And what kind of liability do resorts have in shark attacks? Johnnie Cochran joins us today to discuss both of his cases.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

New questions are surfacing about the death of a Northwestern University football player. A videotape shows 22-year-old Rashidi Wheeler collapsing during a voluntary team conditioning test and being helped off the field and treated. The videotape also reveals a 25- minute span between the time of the collapse and the arrival of an ambulance.

And joining us today from New York is Johnnie Cochran, the attorney for Rashidi Wheeler's mother, Linda Will. And here in Washington: John Leonard (ph), litigator Victor Schwartz, and Erik Hodge (ph).

Johnnie, I want to go right to you. You represent, I understand, Linda Will, the mother of Rashidi Wheeler. What do you believe happened in this case? And why are you investigating as to whether or not to file a lawsuit? Isn't it part of the tough part of football conditioning?

JOHNNIE COCHRAN, ATTORNEY FOR LINDA WILL: Well, it is a tough part of football. But I think when you have a so-called voluntary workout, where a staff member is there recording all the times, it was an organized workout, it seems to me.

And they were ill-prepared for the weather and for what might have happened. And so what we found was when this young man -- and you saw him -- became ill and was saying he was dying, they didn't -- the on-field phone did not work. They had to use one of the kids' phones to call for assistance. The police arrived before the paramedics, maybe some 25 minutes.

He did not get the care that he should have received. And his life could have been saved. And I think -- there's not only this family, which they want very much that this does not happen to any other young man ever again.

COSSACK: All right, Johnnie, let me read to you a statement that Northwestern has put out, to be objective and to be fair about this: "Northwestern University is continuing its review of Rashidi Wheeler's death. The review team is studying every aspect of this terrible tragedy, including the possibility that supplements may have been a factor. The goal will be to determine the precise circumstances of that August 3 afternoon, what procedures were in place to respond to emergency situations and how those procedures were implemented.

"The intention is do a thorough and diligent examination, with the aim of preventing a similar situation from occurring in the future." And, finally, they say: "Northwestern is determined to avoid speculation and is refraining from commenting on specific details until the review is complete."

Johnnie, there is the hint, at least, that perhaps Rashidi Wheeler was taking these supplements. We know of one in particular that has been at least alleged -- no one knows whether he has -- and in no way am I saying agent he has -- was this Agent Orange (sic), which is a supplement that can be bought over the counter. And it is for people who want to build up muscle mass and strength.

Could -- one, do you know whether or not he was taking that? Two, did they know he was taking it? And, three, do you think it had any effect if he was?

COCHRAN: You know, I really don't know the answer to any of those questions. We have spoken with the toxicological examiner and asked for an early report.

We hope to get a report, Roger, maybe by the end of this week, as to what happened. We don't have the autopsy report either. So, obviously, it is a possibility. It would be violation of NCAA rules if any of those kids were.

But I think what it is, also, it speaks to the culture: You've got to run faster. You've got to build more muscle mass. You've got to do all these things.

And you've got people out there videotaping this conditioning thing. And you know how it is: If you don't do well at this, then when you get the real drills, you are going to you have a problem.

And I think we've got to somewhat back up and kind of change the rules. They needed some additional medical attention or personnel out there. They needed that phone to work, because these kind of things do happen. And as my partner, Jim Montgomery, pointed out, when he fell to the wayside and said, "I was dying," they continued the wind sprints.

How voluntary is that? These are very sensitive people. And they talk about being a family. And it's an honorable institution. And I hope they will do a thorough and a fair investigation, so this never happens to anyone again, Roger.

COSSACK: Johnnie, the autopsy's report of death was because of asthma.


COSSACK: And we know that Rashidi Wheeler did have asthma. It doesn't mention anything else. Are you convinced that that is the cause of death?

COCHRAN: You know, I'm not convinced. And I am going to wait to see. And then, of course, we are going to have our own pathologist. Dr. Michael Baden, whom you know very well, will be looking over anything that comes out on this case. So I don't know yet.

And I want to have it thoroughly investigated to find out what really happened to this young man. He needn't have died and shouldn't have died. There have been reports that he had his inhaler with him. He didn't have his inhaler with him. It was some distance away at the time.

COSSACK: Johnnie, just so we can get it clear for our viewers in this, this was allegedly a voluntary workout. The NCAA says that you can only have so many workouts with the coaches there. But the problem is, as I understand it, is that this workout was being filmed, which may be a violation of NCAA rules -- may be -- and this is an allegation -- I'm not saying it was -- with the intent that this film was going to be turned over to coaches.

If that's the case, perhaps the implication being was that these kids better look at it like it was a regular workout.

COCHRAN: That's the problem, I think. It seems they've got a staff member there. He's videotaping. He's checking times. So it lends certainly an air that this is an unlawful practice that is being supervised, where there is no adequate preparation for these youngsters. And I think that would be wrong, if that's the case. And I hope they will tell the truth about that.

COSSACK: Let me call in Victor Schwartz for a second.

Victor, you have represented all kinds of people as defendants in these kinds of lawsuits. What should the university be concerned about in a situation -- or should it be concerned?

VICTOR SCHWARTZ, TORT ATTORNEY: It should be concerned. And it should find out what the cause of death was. It should find out what this young man had used, if he had used any substances, and try to see that it doesn't occur again.

But it shouldn't be concerned right away with lawsuits. Unfortunately, that's become the focus, "How do I defend the lawsuit?" as compared to, "How do we cure this thing so it doesn't happen again?"

COSSACK: Well, I think -- don't you think, though, that both of those issues are important? One: How do I make sure it doesn't happen again? And two: Perhaps I have some negligence here, and not having proper staffing or proper representation when these -- when these -- when obviously, highly dangerous events. I mean, you take young men and run them in that kind of heat, it's possible that something could happen.

SCHWARTZ: Well, in athletics right today, people are practicing and doing things where events can occur that are not good. The focus should be on the event.

But today in our society, the first thing that happens, before sometimes people are even in the hospital, is the filing of a lawsuit.

COSSACK: Johnnie, is there a difference between what would happen in a professional football camp -- a professional football training, preseason training, and what would happen in a college training situation? I know that you are involved with Minnesota Viking family. Is there a difference?

COCHRAN: Well, I think there is. And I think there are different rules.

I think, in Minnesota, it is profession. It's a business. And you certainly would expect that in a profession or business, that -- Paul Tagliabue of the NFL has gone around to each of these camps. I think they probably are a little more organized at the professional level. But even he has gone around, and I think he's looking at each training camp.

We can do better in this area. Mr. Schwartz is right about that. Too often we do rush and file lawsuits. There are no lawsuits filed in this case. The mother has asked to have some changes. She was very concerned. She is very thoughtful woman, Mrs. Will. So what we are saying is, we are investigating this. But, certainly, if it's staring to walk like a duck, look like a duck, and acting very much like a duck, there's a problem there. And we've got to look at that.

But we have not rushed to judgment, Roger, as you know that term.

COSSACK: OK. Well, I would suspect you would be the last person that would rush to judgment, Johnnie Cochran.


COSSACK: Let's take a break.

Up next: a change in the tide. It's the biggest shark hysteria since the release of "Jaws." But who is responsible for your safety when you wade into the deep blue sea?

Stay with us.


Boulder, Colorado police investigating the murder of JonBenet Ramsey are having DNA tests conducted on an item received from an Internet tipster. Police refuse to identify the item. Six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in the basement of her home on December 1996.



COSSACK: Over the weekend, six surfers were bitten by sharks during a surfing competition near Daytona Beach, Florida. In fact, what you're looking at right now is Smyrna Beach, Florida, where the surfers were involved.

This brings the number of shark attacks to more than 30 worldwide this year. On August 4, Krishna Thompson was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary with his wife in the Bahamas. He was enjoying a swim off the coast of Our Lucaya Beach and Golf Resort when he was mauled by a shark. He managed to struggle back to shore. But, unfortunately, surgeons were not able to save his leg.

Now the Thompsons are considering whether to take legal action against the resort. Johnnie Cochran represents this family. Also joining us to discuss the number of recent shark attacks, from Coral Gables, Florida is Samuel Gruber, professor of marine biology and fisheries.

Johnnie, this is a tough case because the idea that somehow someone is liable for what a fish does or what a shark does seems to me to be something that people would not understand. What is the liability, if there is any, here?

COCHRAN: Well, again, we're investigating this. And I think a couple of things come to mind. No. 1, I think that there had been a tropical storm, I think Tropical Storm Barry in that area. And that water is generally very clear.

And I understand that the water during a tropical storm becomes more murky. And I understand that sharks react differently and will come closer to the shoreline when there's murky water. And so I think there's an issue here -- they're experienced in this -- of whether or not there was a failure to warn people who were going out swimming that morning.

Certainly, after the attack on Mr. Thompson, they shut down those beaches. There are a couple of beaches there. I think that's one aspect: the failure to warn. I think the second thing is the idea of the conduct of the lifeguards.

The wife said that, look, that he told her that he was crying for help out there. And there was a jet ski where the lifeguards were. They didn't respond. He swam to them. Now, ultimately, they were very good after he got ashore in helping to save his life and stopping the bleeding. That's the second part. The third part is, in the Bahamas, this is a big thing to hand-feed these sharks.

And I think that may be a real problem. Where you're hand- feeding in close proximity to this hotel, this may attract even more sharks. So I think we have to look at this and determine whether or not this may lead to some kind of liability. Basically, I have a young man who has lost most of his leg. He was very athletic. His life has been changed forever. And he is a real hero. I mean, he's laying there in the sand, Roger, and he writes his room number down so they can find his wife. So he's a very brave fellow, who fought off the shark, by the way.

COSSACK: Johnnie, I don't think that anybody is going to argue with you how brave your client is. I think that people might take issue with you just from the beginning, the cause of what happened.

Look, let's say there was a tropical hurricane and the water was murky. This isn't the first time that's been going on. It's been going on forever, it would seem like, and that probably the chances of being bitten by a shark under any circumstances are so minuscule that perhaps they're not within what lawyers call the scope of reason or the duty to warn.

COCHRAN: Well, query: Is that true or not?

Look at all of the things that are happening now. I don't know what is happening in the atmosphere and the environment. But we're seeing more and more of these attacks. So doesn't the hotel have a duty to warn? If they're feeding sharks at or near there, is that a problem? Should the lifeguards respond more aggressively? Does he have to fight the shark off himself and swim to them? Or what happens?

So I think these are all areas at this point. I'm not saying that there will be a lawsuit filed. I'm saying, however, this certainly warrants an investigation, which we are hoping to do in this matter and we're in the process of doing now.

COSSACK: In the interest of fairness, let me read what the hotel has had to say.

"Dr. Rolando Corral, the doctor who provided medical assistance on the shore following the rescue, and a surgeon at Rand Memorial on Grand Bahama Island, is praising the lifeguards on national news programs for their heroics. The national media have interviewed two of the resort lifeguards, who have shared the details of the rescue of the Mr. Thompson. And, finally, our guests who witnessed the rescue from the beach are continuing to recognize the lifeguards, shake their hands and pat their backs for exemplary efforts."

And allegedly, Johnnie, the doctor who was the one that came along, Dr. Rolando Corral, who was reported as a doctor who was strolling the beach when the incident occurred, backed the lifeguards. He said when he reached the scene, the lifeguards had already applied a tourniquet to Thompson's leg and it stopped the bleeding. They were also attaching an oxygen mask. So you have, obviously, problems with witnesses on this, Johnnie.

COCHRAN: Well, I have absolutely no doubt that they did this, as I said, at that point.

The question is: Should they have reacted sooner while he was in this life-and-death struggle with the shark? I mean, after all, he was the one there fighting off the shark. He was the one who beat him off. He was the one yelling for them to come and help. He's the one who swam to them.

What happened after the fact is important. And I praise them for that. But should they have reacted more forcefully and more aggressively early on? I think that's really one of the questions.

COSSACK: Let's talk to Dr. Samuel Gruber.

Sam, you are a shark expert, if you will. What is going on with these sharks? It seems like we saw the movie "Jaws" and laughed because it never happened. But now it seems like every day we read about some young man or young woman doing nothing more than standing in the water and being bitten by a shark. Is there's a change in the atmosphere?

SAMUEL GRUBER, PROFESSOR OF MARINE BIOLOGY: No changes this atmosphere; there is a change in the media.

This is the so-called summer of the shark. I don't see anything differently happening this summer than I have any other summer within the past several years.

COSSACK: Well, is there the same number of shark bites occurring in the same way, in the same places that have always happened? I mean, is this something that just -- that we just never heard about before?

GRUBER: Yes, it is. It's something we've never heard about before, unless you take the time to become interested in it. Now we've had two particularly horrendous shark attacks that the media has seized on. And that has become the focus of our so-called summer of the shark.

COSSACK: Should we be concerned about the fact that the resorts in the Bahamas and other places have these tours to see sharks feed, where a person goes down in almost an iron suit and hand-feeds sharks, and others in scuba diving outfits can watch that?

Is that the kind of thing that is maybe taming sharks and making them come closer to shore?

GRUBER: Well, of course, these sharks feedings are a double- edged sword. By my point of view, by my interests, it is the public that really has to be educated about sharks.

Right now, for me as a marine biologist, the question is not shark bites man, but man eats shark. And that question has to be addressed only by the public. And this is about one of the best ways the public can learn and not demonize the sharks, if you understand what I mean.

COSSACK: No, I think I need to you articulate a little more. What do you mean by that?

GRUBER: What I mean by that is, sharks are being fished and overfished to extinction. Sharks play an extremely important role in the marine environment. They keep the marine environment healthy and clean for us and for our fishy friends.

Well, these shark dives have brought literally millions of people in close contact with sharks so that the "Jaws" image that many people believe is the true one can be replaced by the facts. The myths are great, but the facts are that shark attacks -- the probability of a shark attack is almost meaningless unless you happen to be one of the few people that get attacked.

COSSACK: But, Sam, we just saw over the weekend that surfers who were surfing in a contest, several of them were attacked by different sharks. Is that -- again, I have to keep going back to you. Is that the norm? Has that always been happening?

GRUBER: You mentioned earlier that there was about 37 attacks worldwide this year. Approximately half of those attacks occur in Volusia County.

Now, we -- these attacks are nothing like the horrendous ones that we've seen with Krishna Thompson and Jessie Arbogast.

COSSACK: But are these sharks that we've seen in these attacks, is it normal for them to be so close to shore? I mean, these -- Arbogast and Krishna Thompson, they were just out of maybe 10 to 15 feet in the water.

GRUBER: Oh, yes, indeed. It is -- there are certain species whose life, whose job it is to swim around the shores and feed on bait fish. There are many species that do this. And they are there all the time.

And these sharks are in close contact with millions and millions of bathers every day and they do not bite them. It's only the weird, strange circumstance that we've seen here. And, of course, at this -- where we had six bites over the weekend, this is a surfing contest. And these people went -- knowingly went in the water with these sharks.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back: more with Johnnie Cochran.

Stay with us.


Q: What are the thieves of a Marc Chagall painting asking for as a ransom?

A: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The painting was stolen in June from the Jewish Museum in New York.



COSSACK: We are back. And we've been talking about the shark attacks that we've all been reading about this summer.

Victor, should we now assume the risks, as lawyers say, about going in the water in Volusia County or any of these other places when we know that sharks could be present?

SCHWARTZ: People know the danger. And what is surprising here for anyone is that someone would sue a hotel over a shark bite. I'm glad to hear that Mr. Cochran is investigating it.

And one thing that hasn't happened here is any suit against the shark. And that's professional courtesy. That's why that hasn't occurred yet.


COSSACK: You know, it takes a lawyer to give a bad lawyer joke, Johnnie. What can I say, Victor?

COCHRAN: He should be ashamed of himself.


COSSACK: I know.

Johnnie, the issue, I suppose, is going to get down to whether or not the hotel, if it had knowledge that it was possible that there could be sharks in that area, should have provided knowledge to the possible swimmers, and certainly better medical care. Is that what you are going to be looking into?

COCHRAN: I think so, and whether or not there should have been a failure to warn. Was it foreseeable, given their experience about sharks and their character traits and that sort of thing? Certainly, if you listen to Dr. Gruber, I'm all for sharks flourishing. But I'd rather them not bite so many people. And I don't think it is a normal thing. I know the media is looking at this. But you talk to the families of Jessie Arbogast or you talk to Krishna Thompson or his wife, this is an event that has been life- altering for them.

So we want to change that. We want to make that better. And I think that all the lawyers would be interested in trying to improve circumstances. You noticed that all these shark bites in the past weekend, now they're closing those beaches. After Krishna, they closed the beaches.

Well, if it's foreseeable and predictable, shouldn't they do that beforehand?

GRUBER: It is not foreseeable.

COSSACK: Sam, go ahead.

GRUBER: No, I was just saying that that's the problem about shark attacks: It is not predictable and it is not foreseeable.

The only thing you can say is that when people get in the water with sharks, there will be attacks. And it depends on the number of each.

COCHRAN: Well, that is foreseeable.

GRUBER: No, I'm sorry. When there are 180 million people that go in the water, and there are about 30 incidents, you cannot set up a hypothesis or test it. And, therefore, you cannot predict it.

I can say the sky is falling in. I can say somebody will get an attack. But I don't know where that will be or when it will be.

COSSACK: But the one thing I think that you would agree with, Sam, if you know it is going to happen, perhaps you should have proper medical care there to take care of it. And I am in no way saying that that wasn't there. But that would be something that should be looked into. Isn't that right?

GRUBER: Proper medical care was given, from what I understand.

COSSACK: All right.

I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching.

And join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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