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Family sues Panera Bread after college student's death from drinking Charged Lemonade

A lawsuit, filed on Monday morning in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and first obtained by NBC News, refers to the drink as a "dangerous energy drink" and alleges that Panera failed to adequately warn consumers about its ingredients.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the parents of 21-year-old Sarah Katz, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who taught CPR in underserved communities and worked as a research assistant at a children's hospital. According to documents, Katz had a heart condition known as Long QT Syndrome Type 1 and avoided energy drinks at the recommendation of her doctors.

According to the lawsuit, Katz purchased Charged Lemonade at a Panera Bread restaurant in Philadelphia on September 10, 2022. Several hours later, she suffered a cardiac arrest, her roommate and close friend Victoria Rose Conroy said.

"She was very, very vigilant about what she needed to do to keep herself safe," Conroy said. "I guarantee you, if Sarah knew how much caffeine was in this, she would have never touched it with a 10-foot pole."

Charged Lemonade was "offered alongside all other Panera drinks without caffeine and/or with less caffeine" and was advertised as a "plant-based and clean" drink, containing as much caffeine as dark roast coffee at the restaurant, according to menu photos and in-store drink machines included in the wrongful death lawsuit.

However, the large Charged Lemonade (390 milligrams) contains more caffeine than any size of Panera's dark roast coffee, the complaint states, and these figures are confirmed by the nutritional information on the Panera website. It also contains guarana extract, another stimulant, and the equivalent of almost 30 teaspoons of sugar, the complaint continues, adding that 390 milligrams of caffeine is higher than the caffeine content in standard cans of Red Bull and Monster energy drinks combined. According to the family's lawyer, Katz received a 30-ounce cup of the beverage.

"I think everybody thinks lemonade is safe. And it's really not lemonade. It's a lemon-flavored energy drink," said Elizabeth Crawford, a partner at the law firm Kline & Specter, PC, based in Philadelphia. "It should have an adequate warning."

The lawsuit claims that Charged Lemonade "has design defects as it is a dangerous energy drink."

"These unregulated drinks do not have any warnings regarding any potential consequences, even life-threatening consequences, on blood pressure, heart rate, and/or brain function," the document states.

Conroy described Katz as an honor student and "the most engaged and passionate person I've ever met," someone who smiled and waved to everyone on campus. She tried to educate people about not consuming energy drinks and made other changes to her health, but "she never let that stop her from accomplishing what she wanted," Conroy said.

Katz was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome at the age of 5. The American Heart Association describes Long QT Syndrome as an electrical system disorder of the heart that can cause abnormal heart rhythms triggered by physical exertion or stress and can be managed with medications.

In addition to medication, Katz's condition was monitored with regular doctor visits, where "everything was always normal," Crawford said.

Approximately 1 in 2,000 people have congenital Long QT Syndrome, with some having no symptoms and others experiencing fainting or rapid heartbeats in response to triggers like exercise or fear, said Dr. Charles Berul, an electrophysiologist at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., who is not involved in Katz's case.

Berul, who is on the board of trustees of the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome Foundation, a patient advocacy organization for people with heart rhythm disorders, said caffeine is allowed in moderation for Long QT patients.

"We tell people not to worry: You can drink a little Coke every day or a little coffee," said Berul.