(Image via people.com)
Staff Writer: Maya Arruda
Caffeine is the college student’s best friend. It gets you through 8 AM classes and last-second cramming. It is a loyal, steadfast companion throughout finals. Caffeine helps you make it through another long, terrible semester.
However, for 21-year-old Philadelphian college student Sarah Katz, caffeine isn’t a friend but a murderer.
In September 2022, Sarah drank a Panera Bread charged lemonade and had a heart attack at the restaurant. She was immediately rushed to the hospital, where she had a second heart attack.
Sadly, Sarah passed away in the hospital.
In October 2023, Sarah’s parents, Jill and Michael Katz filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Panera for irresponsibly selling energy drinks marketed as “charged” lemonades. The lawsuit states that Panera charged lemonades have a defective design, manufacturing, and warnings.
Notably, the lawsuit alleges that Panera was knowingly marketing this energy drink product to adults and children as a “safe-for-all beverage” while being fully aware of the dangers this drink could cause “permanent and catastrophic injuries to customers.”
A list of damages in the lawsuit include the untimely death at 21 years old, cardiac arrest, cardiac arrhythmias, hypoxia (low oxygen), and emotional distress.
Sarah had Long QT Type 1 syndrome, a heritable heart condition where potassium channels do not function properly. This results in an increased risk of arrhythmias and irregular heartbeats that can cause fainting, heart attacks, or death.
Caffeine, a well-known stimulant, can trigger heart attacks in people with Long QT syndrome if taken in high enough quantities. Energy drinks, especially, can trigger arrhythmias in people with Long QT syndrome.
Sarah had been diagnosed with her condition at a young age. She had dutifully followed all her doctor’s recommendations and had expected test results at her yearly heart exams. She avoided anything that could strain her heart, like energy drinks, because she knew they could kill her.
Sarah’s official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia caused by Long QT syndrome.
400 milligrams of caffeine is the maximum amount of caffeine that can be safely consumed a day by an average person, according to the FDA. Bang has 300 mg of caffeine in its 16 oz can, Monster drinks have 160 mg for 16 oz, and Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonades have around 260 mg of caffeine in a 20 oz “large” cup.
Moreover, the charged lemonades contain 82 grams of sugar for a 20 oz serving. Monster has only 54 grams in its 16 oz can and also has zero sugar options.
What makes Panera Charged Lemonades different from energy drinks like Monster or Bang? For starters, until recently, Panera Charged Lemonades did not come with the standard warning label against consumption for those sensitive to caffeine, like most energy drinks on the market.
Technically, not including this information is not illegal in the US, but it goes against the American Beverage Association guidelines.
More importantly, unlike most energy drinks, Panera has free refills on its drinks, including the charged lemonades. That 20 oz 260 mg of caffeine can go way over the legally recommended limit in under just one refill.
Additionally, the complete list of ingredients for the charged lemonades is not listed as part of a nutrition label like other energy drinks. In fact, even to this day, the full list of ingredients is not posted in front of or near the charged lemonades. The charged lemonades not only have straight caffeine as an ingredient but also guarana extract (a source of caffeine) and coffee extract (another source of caffeine) as ingredients.
To make matters worse, the charged lemonades aren’t prepared in a controlled, automated facility like Bang or other energy drinks.
As the lawsuit points out, Panera Charged Lemonades are made in-house by their minimum wage employees, which leaves significant room for error with concentrations. It’s unreasonable to expect some high schooler working for $15 per hour to measure all the ingredients out precisely or even to know why it is such a big deal in the first place.
Remember, they aren’t preparing possibly dangerous energy drinks; they’re just preparing “safe,” clean, plant-based drinks with roughly the same amount of caffeine as the coffee they usually make. Clearly, there’s no need to use chemistry-lab-grade precision here.
It’s just lemonade, after all.
The FDA has started investigating the Panera charged lemonades after the lawsuit was filed. This may or may not be why some Panera locations have started posting warning signs for their charged lemonades everywhere.
While this lawsuit may force Panera to make financial reparations, there is no guarantee that they will not reuse the same slimy business tactics that cost Sarah her life.
The lawsuit has yet to be settled, so it is unknown if Panera will end in a settlement or pay the total costs in court.