NEW YORK Monster Beverage (MNST) is hitting back at a lawsuit alleging its energy drinks were responsible for the death of a 14-year-old Maryland girl, saying that no blood test was performed to confirm that the girl died of "caffeine toxicity."
The disclosure comes amid intensifying scrutiny of energy drinks and their caffeine levels. A lawsuit filed last year by the family of Anais Fournier said the girl went into cardiac arrest after drinking two, 24-ounce cans of Monster drinks in a 24-hour period. The Food and Drug Administration is also investigating reports of deaths linked to energy drinks, including five that cite Monster beverages. The agency has noted that the reports don't prove the drinks caused the deaths.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Monster's lawyer Daniel Callahan said the company hired a team of physicians to review the medical records in the Anais Fournier case and found that she likely died of natural causes brought on by her pre-existing heart conditions. The team found no medical evidence to show caffeine was a factor, he said.
Callahan said the finding of "caffeine toxicity" on the autopsy report was based on interviews with Anais Fournier's mother, who told the medical examiner's office the girl had consumed energy drinks before her death.
A spokesman for Maryland's chief medical examiner could not immediately confirm whether a caffeine blood test had been performed and said that the office does not comment on cases in litigation. The cause of death listed on the autopsy report was "cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity" in the presence of a heart condition.
Kevin Goldberg, a Maryland attorney for Fournier's family, said that the absence of a test for caffeine "doesn't tell us anything" and that the family is looking forward to a jury determining Monster's accountability.
"The fact that she went into cardiac arrest just hours after consuming the second 24-ounce Monster energy drink is evidence that she died of caffeine toxicity," he said in an email.
Labeling on Monster's cans say the drinks are not for children or pregnant women. But Goldberg said the reference to children is "ambiguous and intentionally misleading" because Monster's marketing is geared toward teenagers and young adults. Monster says its target market is 18 to 34 years old, but that its drinks are nevertheless safe for children.
The company also said that evidence obtained as part of the lawsuit's discovery process shows Anais Fournier regularly had energy drinks and frequented Starbucks (SBUX) without incident. Monster made the findings public during a press conference in Chicago, which is holding a hearing on a proposed ban on energy drinks Tuesday.
Before the spate of bad publicity that dragged down its stock price in recent months, Monster had been enjoying enormous growth because of the surging popularity of energy drinks. But the success has also brought greater scrutiny.
This summer, the New York state attorney general's office subpoenaed Monster as part of an investigation into how energy drinks are made and marketed. Subpoenas were also sent to Living Essentials, which makes 5-Hour Energy shots, and PepsiCo (PEP), which makes AMP.
Monster has stood by the safety of its drinks, which it says contain 240 milligrams of caffeine for a 24-ounce can, compared with 330 milligrams in a 16-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee. The company, based in Corona, Calif., recently said it will begin disclosing the caffeine levels in its drink labels.
In an interview with the Associated Press last week, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg stressed that reports to the agency of adverse events related to energy drinks do not necessarily suggest a causal effect.
"Frankly, many of the reports, when examined with a real look at the science and the potential for a causal relationship, are not very compelling," she said, without referring to any specific company or incident.
Hamburg said the agency is nevertheless taking "a very serious look" at the links between caffeine and health, beyond just energy drinks.
As part of the FDA's examination of the relationship between caffeine and health, Commissioner Hamburg said the agency is particularly interested in whether there could be subpopulations - such as children or people with underlying cardiovascular disease - who could be at higher risk with caffeinated drinks. She said the FDA is doing a "deep dive into the scientific literature" and bringing together experts from around the country to examine the issue.