A Florida family recently filed suit against Phusion Projects, makers of the alcoholic energy beverage Four Loko, for wrongful death in connection with the death of their son.
Jason Keiran, a 20-year-old sophomore at Florida State University, shot and killed himself in September 2010 after binging for thirty hours on alcoholic beverages. Jason’s parents claim that he started acting crazy after consuming Four Loko, pointing a friend’s loaded twenty-two caliber gun at his head, and then turning it on other partygoers. The parents also allege that their son asked his friends to take the gun away from him. Instead, the boy killed himself.
Four Loko has been in the news lately and has garnered the kind of attention that company owners probably would rather do without. The beverage, sold in 24-ounce cans and affectionately called “blackout in a can,” tastes like a combination of beer and fruit juice and has the alcohol equivalent of up to six beers. While the fruity taste likely makes the drink go down more smoothly (and faster) than regular beer, it is the addition of caffeine that makes the substance truly dangerous. At just $2.50 per can, the drink is especially attractive to college students on a limited budget. Four Loko has been blamed for multiple deaths and countless episodes of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related hospitalizations.
Because Four Loko makes it possible to consume the equivalent of six beers in the time it would take to drink just two, Four Loko drinkers tend to get drunk three times as fast as those who drink regular beer. However, because Four Loko also contains caffeine, users do not feel the full effects of the alcohol immediately. If we were to compare the behavior of a person who had just consumed six beers with the behavior of a person who just drank one Four Loko, we would likely discover the Four Loko drinker to be more alert and acting less intoxicated than the beer drinker. However, once the caffeine wears off the Four Loko drinker will experience the full effect of the alcohol consumption all at once. This phenomenon is incredibly dangerous, especially if the caffeine wears off when the person is operating a motor vehicle.
Because the effects of Four Loko are slow to materialize, it likely increases binge drinking behavior in the people who drink it. Approximately thirty percent of adults and sixty percent of high school students who drink alcohol admit to binge drinking. In addition to suicides, binge drinking is known to increase the risk of drunk driving, assault and sexual abuse.
Although law enforcement officers in Florida have yet to decide whether the shooting was intentional (suicide) or accidental, the family is pretty clear on who is to blame for the tragedy and hope that the lawsuit will result in drumming makers of alcoholic energy drinks out of business. It is estimated that Jason drank three cans of Four Loko prior to his death, or the amount of alcohol contained in twelve glasses of wine. Although he told friends that he could not feel the effects of the alcohol, his blood alcohol content reached at least .283, more than three times the legal limit for driving a car.
For its part, the makers of Four Loko deny responsibility for the incident and, instead, argue that that mixing alcohol and caffeine is not necessarily dangerous. Last week the FDA issued a warning to four makers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, including the makers of Four Loko. In the warning, the FDA declared the beverage to be unsafe and illegal and gave manufacturers two weeks to rework their formulas. Failure to comply with the FDA directive could result in a federal ban on the dangerous drinks; at least five states have already outlawed them. Phusion Projects was one step ahead of the FDA, however, as it had already removed Four Loko from shelves.
Although a full quarter of all people who commit suicide are drunk, it remains to be seen whether, in Jason’s case, the alcohol put him in a dangerous mental state or simply made him clumsy. It is also unclear the type of liability, if any, Phusion Projects is subject to as a result of the tragedy. To be successful in the suit, Jason’s parents will likely need to prove that he was unaware of the dangerous effect the Four Loko would have on him prior to consuming it.