Heart attack victim's spouse sues 5-Hour Energy maker for wrongful death

The makers of 5-Hour Energy, a popular energy drink that claims to pack all the benefits of coffee in a 2-ounce plastic bottle with "no crash later," are being sued by the family of a man who died after drinking it.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court in Tennessee last week by the spouse of 27-year-old Antonio Hassell alleges that Hassell suffered a heart attack as a result of drinking 5-Hour Energy. Hassell, who worked late-night shifts at a warehouse, took the shot-sized drinks to stay alert. He collapsed from a heart attack while playing basketball about a month after he started drinking them.

According to the suit, Hassell suffered cardiac arrest and died seven months after he was hospitalized. The complaint asserts he would not have used 5-Hour Energy, which has now cornered about 80% of the energy drink market, if he had known the health consequences, risks, and adverse side effects caused by energy drinks. The Hassell suit seeks $15 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages.

Living Essentials, the company behind the blockbuster concoction, is known for keeping the ingredients in its product top secret, saying only that it contains amino acids and about as much caffeine as a "cup of the leading premium coffee." The company spends $60 million a year on 5-Hour Energy advertisements and frequently touts its "secret recipe."

"Although we've not yet seen the lawsuit, I can tell you 5-Hour Energy is a safe dietary supplement," said Elaine Lutz, a spokeswoman for Living Essentials. "Our product fully complies with the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act regulations for labeling and manufacturing practices."

The lawsuit alleges, however, that the labels on the drink are less than forthright. The allegations claim that they give the false impression that pre-marketing clinical testing and research on safety, as well as post-marketing surveillance, had been done, when in fact it hadn't, according to court documents. The company's web site contains a page called "ingredients and safety" that calls attention to the amino acid phenylalanine, vitamins, and niacin, dated 2010.

Lutz said more than six million people use 5-Hour Energy each week "to help them lead more productive lives."

But there is growing scientific and medical evidence that suggests energy drinks, which typically increase blood pressure, are linked to a number of health risks. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University warned in 2008 that energy drinks should carry prominent labels warning of possible dangers. Caffeine in some of these drinks can equal 14 cans of Coca Cola, and consumers may face the possible risk of caffeine intoxication. Health Canada, the country's equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has received 59 complaints of adverse reaction concerning energy drinks.

Living Essentials is not a stranger to controversy. In 2001, the FDA chastised founder Manoj Bhargava for marketing a pill called "Chaser," claimed as a hangover cure. The agency accused Bhargava of making unfounded claims that "Chaser" helped prevent hangovers by absorbing elements in beer, wine and liquor that cause hangovers. In fact, the pill contained vegetable carbon and activated calcium carbonate.
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