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Parents who claim Panera’s Charged Lemonade caused daughter’s death are calling for changes amid lawsuit

By Liz Crawford

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    PHILADELPHIA (KYW) — It’s been nearly two years since Sarah Katz, a college student at the University of Pennsylvania, suddenly died. For the first time, in an exclusive interview with CBS News Philadelphia, Katz’s parents opened up about their tragedy.

Katz had a heart condition and said she never would have had Panera Bread’s “Charged Lemonade” if she had known what was in it. Now, her family is suing the restaurant chain because they claim there was no consumer warning about the amount of caffeine and stimulants in the drink.

According to the Katzes’ lawsuit, one large charged lemonade had more caffeine than a similarly sized combination of a Red Bull and a Monster Energy drink, and they believe their daughter had no idea.

When Sarah Katz was 5 years old, her mom said she had a seizure during a swimming lesson. She was diagnosed with Long QT syndrome and soon after, she started daily medication. Her parents say she never had another incident until September 2022 when she was a thriving college student in Philadelphia.

Jill and Michael Katz say they got a phone call that their daughter collapsed at a restaurant. They rushed from their home in Jersey City and drove straight to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

The Katzes said when they arrived, medical staff was trying to resuscitate Sarah, but they were unable to save her.

In addition to the excruciating and shocking loss of their daughter, Jill and Michael Katz had no answers as to what caused their daughter to have cardiac arrest and die.

It wasn’t until a few months later when they drove back to Philadelphia to clean out her apartment that they learned a new piece of information from her roommate who had started piecing together clues after her death.

“She says, ‘I think I know what happened to Sarah,’ and I wasn’t sure, you know, to talk to you about it or not,” Jill Katz said of the conversation with her daughter’s former roommate. “But, you know, that she started recently drinking these Panera Charged Lemonades and she knew that Sarah stayed away from energy drinks, and there’s a big one in the apartment.”

The Katzes determined Sarah had purchased and drank a Charged Lemonade from the Panera on South 40th Street in Philadelphia.

In a lawsuit filed on the family’s behalf, it says the Charged Lemonade was offered side-by-side with all of Panera’s non-caffeinated and/or less caffeinated drinks and it was not advertised as an energy drink.

Jill and Michael said Sarah avoided energy drinks because of her heart condition called Long QT syndrome, which disrupts the heart’s electrical activity.

The Katzes said Sarah’s doctor told her the one thing to avoid was energy drinks.

According to their lawsuit, a large Charged Lemonade at Panera has more caffeine and sugar than a Red Bull and Monster energy drink combined.

Now, they decided to share their story to make others aware of products that might not have warning labels about ingredients.

“Caffeine for many adults can be safe in certain quantities but not unlimited quantities,” said Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Moyer wrote an article titled, “Food Fail: Panera Charged Lemonades,” two months before Sarah’s death.

“People might not realize when they were getting the charged lemonade, how much caffeine,” Moyer said.

In an e-mail to CBS News Philadelphia, an FDA spokesperson said, in part:

“Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), companies are responsible for ensuring that any use of caffeine in their food products is safe. The safe use of the ingredient includes the amount that would be expected to be consumed. For packaged foods, caffeine added as an ingredient must be declared in the statement of ingredients, but declaring the amount of caffeine in a food or beverage is voluntary.”

The Katzes say the first step is removing charged lemonades from Panera’s menu.

In May, CBS Money Watch reported the product was being phased out. Charged lemonade is no longer on its online menu.

Panera did not respond to requests for comment about this story, but after the lawsuit was filed in 2023, Panera issued a statement saying: “We were very saddened to learn this morning about the tragic passing of Sarah Katz, and our hearts go out to her family. At Panera, we strongly believe in transparency around our ingredients. We will work quickly to thoroughly investigate this matter.”

In response to the lawsuit filed by Jill and Michael Katz, Panera denied any responsibility for her death.

“The bigger picture is the ultimate regulation of energy drinks,” Jill Katz said. “Bring transparency to consumers, the public, so people have choices. People can make an educated choice on what’s right for them.”

Sarah’s parents filed the lawsuit against Panera in October of last year. The trial is scheduled for September in Philadelphia. Their attorney is representing three other families also suing Panera over its charged lemonade.

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