Hot Docs: Alcoholic energy drinks caused stroke, lawsuit claims

July 21, 2011

Four LokoOver the past five years, caffeinated alcoholic energy drinks have seen a surge in popularity.

Spurred by the practice of mixing Red Bull (a non-alcoholic caffeinated energy drink) with vodka, many companies began selling energy drinks with alcohol already added.

In 2009, though, the drinks came under scrutiny for, among other things, their potential health effects.

Finally, in November 2010, the FDA informed four drink manufacturers that their beverages are unsafe and would be pulled from U.S. shelves unless they are reformulated to reduce the caffeine content (which the manufacturers subsequently did).

And now, the decline of alcoholic energy drinks continues.

On Monday, a man filed suit against Phusion Projects (one of the four manufacturers mentioned above), the maker of Four Loko, an alcoholic energy drink.

Although a class-action suit was filed against Phusion in March, this plaintiff’s claim likely isn’t precluded by it.

Why?

The class-action is based on claims that Phusion was deceitful in disclosing the safety of its product, and that complaint makes no allegations of actual injuries sustained by class members.

This recent complaint, though, claims the plaintiff, Robert Villa, suffered a stroke after consuming two Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks.

Hot Doc: Villa v. Phusion Projects LLC

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Villa purchased the drinks on October 29, 2010 (before they were pulled off the shelves), went home, and drank them.

He then felt his right arm and leg go numb, and then became unconscious.

Villa awoke early the following morning, but the numbness in his arm and leg had gotten worse.

Thinking that sleep would solve the problem, he went back to bed.

When he awoke at 6:00 p.m., he had a throbbing headache, and the numbness in his arm and leg were worse.

He then went to the hospital, where Villa was told that his blood pressure was extremely high, and that he had suffered a stroke.

Because of the stroke, Villa has suffered from slurred speech, is unbalanced, has had to undergo rehabilitation services, and has furthermore been on medications since.

While the drinks usually contain some warning about the level of caffeine and that pregnant women and people with heart conditions shouldn’t consume them, Villa, an otherwise healthy 33-year old, had no previous heart conditions (nor, obviously, was he pregnant).

Legally, Villa’s causation case isn’t as difficult as it may first seem.

The high caffeine content of the beverages probably played a large part in Villa’s high blood pressure, and he would have been assumed by the court to have been aware of those effects before ingesting the drinks.

However, the effects of adding alcohol (and herbal energy supplements like guarana) to the drinks have not been thoroughly tested and are still relatively unknown.

It is quite likely that, had it not been for the presence of the alcohol, Villa wouldn’t have suffered a stroke.

Because the data really isn’t there to support a conclusive assertion one way or another, the bad press garnered by alcoholic energy drinks will likely shift a finding in Villa’s favor.

While this case is the latest toll in the death knell of alcoholic energy drinks, hopefully other companies can garner a lesson from the ordeal.

Thoroughly testing a product’s safety can be expensive and time-consuming, but not nearly as much as the legal consequences of foregoing such testing.