Lawsuits piling up for Panera over Charged Lemonade deaths, health harms

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published February 16, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Three lawsuits have now been filed against Panera, claiming that its highly caffeinated Charged Lemonade beverage caused the deaths of two individuals and triggered serious heart problems in a third.

  • Legal experts predict the lawsuits will include arguments about whether Panera should have been aware that its lemonade could have life-threatening effects and whether it should have provided warnings to consumers about potential health dangers.

  • Physicians may want to advise patients with cardiac issues, pregnant individuals, or others with certain health conditions to be aware of the caffeine levels they are ingesting and to seek medical help if they experience adverse effects.

Three lawsuits have been filed against Panera over the company’s highly caffeinated lemonades. The cases claim the drinks, which are marketed as Charged Lemonade, caused the deaths of two people and triggered serious heart problems in another. The beverages contain up to 234 milligrams of caffeine, which equates to about two and a half cups of coffee.

Healthy adults can have up to 400 mg of caffeine a day,[] but people with certain health conditions, especially those involving the heart, face a heightened risk of experiencing adverse and, in serious cases, life-threatening effects from consuming caffeine.

In addition, it’s difficult to quickly consume hot caffeinated beverages, like coffee, however, people may have an easier time consuming energy drinks, such as the Charged Lemonade, rapidly, according to Nima Majlesi, DO, director of medical toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital. “The problem with this product is likely the sweet taste in the setting of high concentrations of caffeine,” Dr. Majlesi told MDLinx

Many people have experienced serious neurological and cardiovascular complications and have even died from over-consuming caffeinated energy drinks, according to NIH research.[] 

Health risks linked with high levels of caffeine  

Caffeine's stimulant effects can impact the body in multiple ways, though it has the greatest impact on the brain and cardiovascular system, according to Dr. Majlesi. Soon after ingesting caffeine, your heart rate increases, and your blood vessels constrict, or tighten.[] At the same time, potassium levels drop and the stimulant inhibits adenosine, a chemical found in human cells, activity in the brain. “This is what leads to the ‘jittery’ feeling people get from too much caffeine,” Dr. Majlesi says. 

Some people may develop a headache, dizziness, dehydration, trouble sleeping, or anxiety, according to the NIH. In excess amounts, caffeine can lead to irregular heartbeats, agitation, and seizures, Dr. Majlesi added.

Some individuals, including those who are pregnant or have heart conditions, may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine and can experience adverse side effects or serious health complications after consuming energy drinks with added caffeine. For example, one of the individuals who died after drinking a Charged Lemonade had dysrhythmia, a health condition where the heart beats irregularly, which may be due to underlying genetic causes. 

If you’ve consumed too much caffeine

While it’s known that people with heart conditions are more at risk and should be aware of how much caffeine they’re consuming, “there are thousands of people walking around with undiagnosed cardiac issues (often related to atherosclerosis),” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, and author of Recipe For Survival. As a result, people may buy caffeinated energy drinks without thinking they’re at risk. 

She recommends being aware of how much caffeine is in different beverages. “Safer ways to consume caffeine are not drinking beverages that have ‘added’ caffeine in them since that's not innately part of the product,” says Dr. Hunnes. And just because refills are available, doesn’t mean you should consume multiple drinks with added caffeine, she added.

In most cases, mild symptoms, such as anxiety, jitters, or tremors, will resolve on their own with time. The average half-life of caffeine is around 5 hours. If symptoms persist or worsen, it’s crucial to seek medicare care. People experiencing adverse health effects from ingesting high levels of caffeine should never try to ride it out at home or self-treat the side effects. “If you feel lightheaded, dizzy, chest pain, shortness of breath, severe headache, severe tremors, faint, or have a seizure, call 911,” advises Dr. Majlesi.

What's behind the lawsuits

The concern with the Charged Lemonade product is that people may be unaware of how much caffeine they’re consuming. “If you're not aware of the caffeine level, you may consume too much too quickly, or have more, or even adding it on to having coffee or other caffeine earlier in the day may just indicate that it's too much caffeine,” Dr. Hunnes said.

The lawsuits are product liability lawsuits, and more specifically, failure to warn cases, explains Sharona Hoffman, JD, LLM, SJD, a professor of law and bioethics and co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Manufacturers have a duty to alert customers if and when products are dangerous when used in the intended manner, the manufacturer is aware—or should be aware—of potential health risks, and the risks aren’t obvious to people, she said.

“Thus, warnings are required when reasonably foreseeable risks of harm from product use could be diminished or avoided through reasonable instructions or warnings, and the absence of warnings or instructions makes the product unsafe,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman suspects the lawsuits will include arguments about whether Panera should have been aware that its lemonade could have life-threatening effects and whether the harm was foreseeable. Following the deaths and lawsuits, Panera re-positioned the Charged Lemonade station behind the counter and put up warning signs. “These new measures, however, will not constitute proof that it should have provided warnings at the time of the victims’ deaths,” Hoffman said.

What this means for you

As the lawsuits play out against Panera, physicians can advise their patients with heart conditions, people who are pregnant, or others with certain health conditions, about safe caffeine levels and potential health risks of exceeding those limits.

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