Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Study on the dangers of "energy drinks"

 A few minutes after I posted the news that Panera would stop selling its "charged lemonade," I saw this story on the dangers of other so-called "energy drinks":  Energy drinks show ‘damaging’ effects on young adults, studies show.

This is not a new issue. Manufacturers of highly caffeinated drinks have known about this problem for a long time. If you click here, you will be taken to a page with at least 20 stories I have published on the subject, dating back to 2009.  

Monday, May 13, 2024

Panera Halts Sales of “Charged” Lemonade Drinks Following Lawsuits Claiming Caffeine Overdose Deaths

Last December  I reported on several lawsuits filed against Panera Bread Co. alleging it should be liable for the deaths of customers who suffered cardiac arrest after drinking Panera's "charged lemonade" which allegedly contained more than 300 ml of caffeine at the time.  See here and here.

Today, I am writing to report that Panera has decided to stop selling the product in question.  As reported in AboutLawsuits.com

Reports suggest that Panera Bread will no longer sell its “charged” lemonade products, after at least two consumer deaths were linked to excessive levels of caffeine in some of the drinks, leading to wrongful death lawsuits by the families.

Panera Charged Lemonade was introduced in 2022, featuring high levels of caffeine marketed as an alternative to coffee or energy drinks. However, at least two wrongful death lawsuits were filed against Panera last year, claiming that high levels of caffeine in the beverage led to fatal heart attacks or other heart complications.

While Panera claimed their charged lemonade as plant-based and clean, a 30oz lemonade could contain up to 390 milligrams of caffeine, which is the equivalent of four cups of coffee or three-and-a-half 12-oz cans of Red Bull. In addition, since Panera’s employees mix the lemonade, caffeine levels can vary drastically in different drinks, potentially providing potentially dangerous amounts for some consumers, especially those with certain pre-existing conditions.

Various news reports now indicate that employees are now being told that Panera Charged Lemonade will be phased out, and the chain is no longer ordering some key ingredients used to mix the products in stores.

Go here for the full story

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

More on the consequences of the Alabama case holding that embryos are "children" for purposes of a wrongful death case

 Yesterday I posted a comment about a recent case in Alabama holding that plaintiffs had a valid cause of action for wrongful death based on the accidental destruction of frozen embryos.  I updated that post soon after I posted it, so if you read it immediately after it was picked up in your news aggregator you may want to go back to read it again because I added a quote from an article by someone else that had some good analysis.

The other part of the equation is the discussion of the possible consequences of the decision for issues outside of the litigation and outside of tort law in general.  That discussion picked up quite a bit today in the news.  Some of those consequences are already coming true:  The University of Alabama has terminated providing IVF care!  The University Hospital is a huge public facility so this decision will affect a lot of patients.  The hospital said they would continue to extract eggs, but they would not fertilize them.

 Here are a few links to articles on the subject.  

The Guardian: "Alabama’s supreme court ruled embryos are ‘extrauterine children’. IVF patients are worried"

MSNBC: Alabama’s embryos ruling is a terrifying preview of another Trump presidency [this link lead to a page that has a video on top; the video is not related to the story; read the article below the video]

NPR (3 minute audio): Alabama's largest hospital says it is halting IVF treatments in wake of court ruling

The Guardian: Alabama university pauses IVF care after frozen embryos deemed ‘children’

Politico: Major Alabama hospital stops IVF treatment after court rules embryos are children

NPR (3 minute audio): University of Alabama in Birmingham pauses IVF procedures due to embryo ruling

The Hill: Alabama hospitals halt IVF after ruling

The Hill:  How Alabama’s frozen embryo decision is shaking the nation: What you need to know

Politico: ‘Another hot potato’: Alabama’s IVF ruling risks political, legal backlash

Alex Wagner Tonight (video segment)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Alabama Supreme Court rules frozen embryos are ‘children’ for purposes of the state's wrongful death statutes -- UPDATED

As you probably have heard by now, the Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled that a group of in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients could sue for wrongful death because their frozen embryos were destroyed while in the defendant's facility.  

The decision has gathered a lot of attention (see links below) and it does have significant consequences, but there are a couple of things that the coverage is not mentioning.  First, the decision is not unprecedented and, in Alabama's case, it is not that surprising since the state's supreme court had already decided (years ago) to recognize a wrongful death claim for the death of a fetus.

Typically, wrongful death statutes state the circumstances under which survivors of "a person" who dies because of someone's negligence can recover.  And, typically, that language ("a person") is subject to interpretation.  Some statutes provide a definition, while in other states courts have had to interpret the meaning of the words or to decipher the intent of the legislature. 

On the issue of who should be considered a person, jurisdictions fall into one of three categories:  (1) those that define a person as someone who is born alive (which requires evidence of a live birth before the death for which the wrongful death suit is brought; (2) those who consider life to begin at conception (Illinois uses this approach in its statute) and (3) those who "compromise" by holding that "personhood" starts at the point of "viability" (usually defined as the point in time when the fetus could survive independently of the mother).

Back in 2011 or 2012, Alabama decided a case adopting the view that life begins at conception.  In that case, the court held that it would be an "unfair and arbitrary endeavor to draw a line that allows recovery on behalf of a fetus injured before viability that dies after achieving viability but that prevents recovery on behalf of a fetus injured that, as a result of those injuries, does not survive to viability."  I wrote about that case here.  Alabama then reaffirmed its decision in 2017.  

And Alabama is not alone in considering this question.  I do not remember how these cases were ultimately decided but I know the question was litigated in  Nebraska.  Also, in 2013 trial court in Colorado dismissed a wrongful death claim for the death of a fetus, and the state's supreme court denied review.   (the links are to my posts at the time the cases were reported).

I wrote a short comment on the issue back in 2015 here and again in 2021 here.

One can say that once the court took the position that there is a right to a wrongful death claim for the death of an unviable fetus, the view of the court is that life begins at conception.  But then the question becomes what constitutes "conception"?  And that is where the question of the distinction between a fetus, a fertilized egg, a frozen embryo and an implanted embryo becomes important.  I have not seen commentary about that, other than in a short article here.  This is the only comment I have seen that makes the important distinction between cases that involve recognizing a cause of action for the wrongful death of a fetus and the recent case related to an frozen embryo:

Embryos don’t just automatically turn into kids. IVF families can go through multiple implants in an effort to get a child. And for this reason, clinics try to successfully fertilize a number of eggs in case of failure. That creates a bunch of embryos that won’t end up being implanted and that probably wouldn’t result in a child even if they were. Without the freedom to get rid of those cells after the fact, IVF is an untenable industry.

This case, by itself, doesn’t get that far. Families who consent to ending the process aren’t going to sue. But the court didn’t limit itself to giving the plaintiffs a cause of action, and instead went on a tear laying the groundwork to expand the state’s criminal laws to not only shut down IVF, but to greenlight the next prosecutor who wants to charge women with murder for having a miscarriage.

You can read the Alabama Court's opinion here.  To read more commentary about the decision, you can go to the links below. 

The Hill

Why the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling on embryos matters

NPR (4 minute audio)



Courthouse News Service

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Follow up on the possible criminal liability of a parent

 A few days ago I posted a comment on the ongoing prosecution of the mother of a child who engaged in a mass shooting at a school.  The case is a criminal prosecution but some of the issues are similar and relevant for tort law because they involve the possibility of imposing vicarious liability (which is not what is being charged) and the underlying issue of causation (which is very much at issue in the case).  

I am following up on this today because Joseph Margulies. a Professor of Government at Cornell University, recently published a comment on these issues over at Justicia. In it he points out, correctly, that one important issue in the case (as in a torts case) is the question of proximate cause and, although he does not mention it by name, the question of duty.  And, in the end, he questions whether it would be a good idea to impose a duty on parents that could result in criminal liability under the circumstances of the case.  The comment is short and you can read it here.  

Friday, January 26, 2024

News reports that a case in Michigan will decide if parents can be criminally responsible for a child's actions are wrong

 If you have been paying attention to the news, you may have heard that a criminal case is just underway in Michigan in which the mother of a child who killed a number students in a school shooting spree is on trial for involuntary manslaughter.  And, you may have noticed that an often repeated version of the story is that the case is about whether parents can be held responsible for the conduct of their child.

This formulation of the issue is wrong.  

The parents are not on trial for the conduct of their child.  That would mean that the state is looking to convict them based on vicarious liability.  Instead, the parents are on trial for their own conduct, which led to and resulted in the conduct of the child.  That's very different.  In other words, the parents are being tried for direct (as opposed to vicarious) liability.  They are not facing convictions "for the conduct of their child"; they are facing conviction for their own conduct.

Now, before we go any further, let's remember that this case is a criminal case, not a torts case.  But the implications of the possible liability of a parent for the results of the conduct of a child are obviously important for tort law.

In torts, parents are typically not held vicariously liable for the conduct of their children.  But they can be held liable for their own conduct if their conduct is a cause that leads to the injury of the plaintiff. Thus, the principle at issue is the same.  

However, making the case for tort liability is easier.  There seems to be pretty solid support for the arguments of all the elements of the cause of action, including proximate cause since it is relatively easy to argue that the injury was a foreseeable consequence of the negligent conduct, which included giving the child a gun knowing the child was mentally unstable.  Of course, the defendant will argue that the conduct of the child was a superseding cause, but the argument will come down to whether the child's conduct was unforeseeable, and there is good support to defeat that argument.

BUT back to the actual case in Michigan, what is different is that for criminal liability, the conduct in question must have been defined as a crime by the penal law.  And that is the issue in the criminal case.  The state is trying to extend the definition of manslaughter to include the conduct of the parents which allegedly "facilitated" the manslaughter committed by the child.  This creates the confusion.  Rather than charge the parents for the "facilitation" of the crime, or with a crime like "reckless endangerment" or aiding and abetting or something like that, the state is charging the parents with the actual manslaughter.  

Whether that is the proper charge given the evidence is a matter of criminal law about which I am not an expert.  But the issue was argued before the court.  The court held against the parents, and was affirmed by two higher courts on appeal.  Here is the decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals which holds that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding The district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the child's decision to shoot four classmates was not a superseding cause because it was foreseeable.

Interestingly, take a look at the finding of the trial court on the issue, which if you did not know otherwise you would think was taken from a torts case (other than the reference to "as alleged by the People"):

The Court concludes that sufficient evidence has been presented to allow a reasonable juror to find factual causation and to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that the deaths of the victims were a direct and natural result of the Defendants’ gross negligence.  The Court further concludes that the criminal misconduct of the Defendants’ son was an intervening cause but that a reasonable juror could conclude that his actions were reasonably foreseeable.  Therefore, the causal link between Defendants’ actions and their liability for the deaths of the victims, as alleged by the People, is not severed by the actions of their son.  A reasonable juror could conclude that the action of the Defendants’ son was a related link in the causal chain. 

According to the news, the case is the first instance in which a parent is charged (for her own conduct) with the crime that corresponds to the conduct of the child.  Not too long ago, the mother of a 6-year-old who shot a teacher was tried in relation to the incident, but she was tried (and convicted) of child neglect, not with the crime that would correspond to the conduct of the child -- which is what the prosecutors are trying to do in Michigan.

The case is clearly an attempt to send a message and put pressure on parents to take better care or control of a child when there are signs that the child needs it.  This may start a trend in prosecutions and it may influence how courts deal with similar issues in torts cases. 

You can read coverage about the case here:

NPR (audio)

The Hill (includes video)

The Hill (includes video of the opening statements)

Monday, January 22, 2024

Camp Lejeune Plaintiffs Seek Partial Summary Judgment on Issue of Cause in Fact

 AboutLawsuits is reporting that the Plaintiffs pursuing Camp Lejeune injury lawsuits have filed a motion for partial summary judgment in the litigation, asking the U.S. District Judges presiding over the cases to hold that, instead of having to prove actual contact with toxic materials, each plaintiff would only be required to prove that they were on the North Carolina military base for 30 days during the period of time that contaminants were in the water.  You can read the full story here.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Comment on the recent case on whether a suicide is an unforeseeable intervening event

 A few days ago I reported (here) that the Illinois Appellate Court recently decided a case on whether a decedent’s conduct in committing suicide constitutes a superseding cause that defeats a plaintiff’s cause of action for wrongful death.  The case is called O’Donnell v. Bailey & Associates Counseling.  

I mentioned that I was interested in the subject because Illinois is one of those states that has decided in the past that a suicide is an unforeseeable, and therefore superseding, intervening cause “as a matter of law.”  I finally had a chance to read the opinion, and, oh my!  What a mess!

If you want a course on how to make something much more difficult and confusing than it needs to be read this case and, more importantly, the state supreme court's cases it cites.  By working through a word salad based on statements about “general rules” that apply “as a matter of law” but that end up having exceptions, which means they should not always apply a matter of law, and ignoring basic rules of tort law, in the end the court manages to decide the case by going against the language of precedent cases, while stating that it is following precedent, which is actually correct, because the precedent cases do not say what the court has been saying they said since they were decided.  

Did you get all that?  Let’s see if we can figure it out.  And let’s start at the very beginning.

As you probably know, the prevailing approach to the issue of proximate cause is the so-called scope of the risk analysis (adopted by the Restatement) the main ingredient of which is the notion of foreseeability.  According to this analysis, a defendant’s conduct is a proximate cause of the injury if the injury is a foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the negligent conduct.  But you also probably know that this long version of the analysis is usually shortened to simply asking whether the injury is foreseeable.  If the plaintiff can convince that the injury is foreseeable given the conduct of the defendant, the plaintiff will meet the element of proximate cause.

Now, the defendant, of course, can then argue that the injury is not foreseeable and one way to do that is to argue that an intervening event which was not foreseeable interrupted, and broke, the chain of causation.  Thus, if the defendant can convince that the intervening event was not foreseeable, the defendant will be able to say that the plaintiff can’t establish the element of proximate cause.

This is the basic tort law principle at issue in suicide cases.  In an attempt to defeat the plaintiff’s prima facie case, the defendant will always argue that the conduct of the decedent, ie, committing suicide, was unforeseeable.  

Now here is where things start to get complicated.  Usually, what is or is not foreseeable is a matter of fact to be decided by the jury, but a number of jurisdictions have held that a suicide is unforeseeable “as a matter of law.”  

This conclusion is based on the notion that committing suicide goes so against human nature that it is inconceivable that someone would decide to do so and therefore it should always be thought of as unforeseeable.  The problem with this is that this view is not realistic.  Suicide is common.  In fact, it is one of the top leading causes of death among juveniles in the US.  And, if you take into account mental health issues, and known medication side effects, it is unrealistic to say that suicide is necessarily unforeseeable.  In many cases, it can fairly be argued (and proven) that it was totally foreseeable.

Now let’s talk about the state of the law in Illinois.  

In Illinois, the Supreme Court decided long ago that a suicide is unforeseeable “as a matter of law.”  Yet, in 2015, it decided a case called Turcios v. DeBruler Co. in which, probably without realizing it, the court twisted the analysis into such a pretzel that it ended up exactly where it said it wouldn’t.  I wrote about this back when the case was decided and you can read my comment here, but let me repeat the basics.

In Turcios, the court reiterated its precedent position that a suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law, but then referred to that position as “the general rule” and recognized the possibility that a plaintiff could support a claim if the plaintiff could “plead facts demonstrating that the suicide was foreseeable, i.e., that it was a likely result of the defendant’s conduct.”

Hmm.  Does that sound familiar?  If not, go up an re-read the paragraphs where I explain the basic tort law principle of proximate cause.  

What does this mean?  It means that in 2015, the court, for all practical purposes abandoned the position that a suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law and changed its approach to asking whether the suicide is foreseeable and (as always) putting the burden of proof of the plaintiff to argue facts to support the argument that the suicide was foreseeable.  

And what is that if not simply saying what we know from Torts 101: that knowing the defendant will argue that the intervening event (the suicide) was unforeseeable, the plaintiff will have to argue and prove that the intervening event was foreseeable.  

Given this decision, it makes no sense to continue to say that a suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law.  But the court keeps doing it; and tries to make sense of it by claiming that that is “the general rule” but that there are exceptions to the general rule.  That contradicts its decisions, and more importantly, its logic.  It makes no sense.

Enter the new case, decided just a few days ago, which makes everything even more confusing but oddly reaches the correct result.

In this case, the Appellate Court discusses the possibility of imposing liability on a medical professional for alleged negligent conduct toward an outpatient who later committed suicide.  The plaintiffs, as you would expect, argued that the defendant’s conduct resulted in the decedent’s death and the defendant argued that the act of committing suicide was an unforeseeable and, therefore, superseding cause.  

Following precedent, the lower court dismissed the claim holding that the suicide was unforeseeable as a matter of law.  But the Appellate Court then reversed, once again contradicting the supposed precedent - but which makes sense now that we understand that precedent was abandoned (only the Supreme Court did not really say so when it happened).

This result, on the one hand, add to the confusion about the issue.  Yet, on the other hand, the good news is that the Appellate Court actually used the correct analysis and reached the correct result.  It found that a suicide is not necessarily unforeseeable as a matter of law and, refuting an argument by the defendant, that it does not matter whether the decedent was a patient or an outpatient.  

Citing approvingly a number of decisions from other jurisdictions, the court agreed with one of them in that “[i]f those who are caring for and treating mentally disturbed patients know of facts from which they could reasonably conclude that the patients would be likely to inflict harm on themselves in the absence of preventative measures, then those caretakers must use reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent such harm from occurring.” 

However, the full analysis should be much more simple than the explanation given by the court (and the Supreme Court’s precedent cases).  First, the plaintiff has the burden to show proximate cause, and if the defendant argues that an intervening event is superseding, the court must determine whether that intervening event is foreseeable.  And, second, if the alleged intervening event is a suicide, it must be determined if that unfortunate event was foreseeable under the circumstances, which is not a question decided “as a matter of law.”

Now we sit and wait to see if the case will be appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.  If it is, let’s hope the Court admits that the state of the law is a mess and takes the chance to clean it up.  Given the mess they have created up to this point, I am not too hopeful, but we’ll see.  It is a new year and maybe good things will come.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

IL Appellate Court Holds that Mental Health Providers Can Be Liable for the Suicide of Outpatient Mental Health Clients

 The TortsProf Blog recently reported that the Illinois Appellate Court decided a case holding that a mental health professional can be liable for the suicide of an outpatient.  This is an interesting development because Illinois has decided in the past suicide is an unforeseeable intervening (and therefore superseding) cause as a matter of law.  I am interested in reading how the court distinguishes this case from those precedents.  The case is called O’Donnell v. Bailey & Assocs. Counseling, and you can search for it with this cite:  2023 IL App (1st) 221736.