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‘The pain is just so hard’: Parents hope story of daughter’s death after consuming Panera beverage will save others

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(NEW YORK) — On Sept. 10, 2022, Michael and Jill Katz received a devastating phone call that their 21-year-old daughter Sarah had collapsed while out to dinner with friends. They raced from their New Jersey home to Philadelphia, where Sarah was attending college.

Sarah Katz had suffered cardiac arrest and was then transported to a nearby hospital, where doctors informed her parents that she had suffered another cardiac arrest and ultimately passed away.

“The pain is just so hard and so deep,” Jill Katz said in an interview with “Nightline” about her daughter’s death. “It’s not something you get better from. Some people say oh time is all healing. It’s not. There’s no healing. It’s just acclimation.”

“It’s so many mixed emotions,” Michael Katz said. “There are no more photos. There are no more memories. It’s the memories that we have. And luckily, we’re very fortunate. We’ve got so many wonderful, incredible memories.”

Sarah Katz, a University of Pennsylvania student, was diagnosed when she was 5 years old with a heart condition called Long QT syndrome type 1 (LQT1). The diagnosis prompted her to become an advocate, and she began teaching CPR and defibrillator use when she was just 13 years old. She was also a Red Cap Ambassador for the American Heart Association. Due to her condition, Sarah avoided high-caffeine energy drinks at the recommendation of her doctors.

After Sarah’s death, her parents say they were able to pinpoint the cause.

“We had to go pack up her apartment in Philadelphia,” Michael Katz said. “When we went there, her roommate told us that she had had a drink from Panera, a Charged Lemonade drink. The reason why the roommate brought it up to us was that she had known about some of the dangers in these excessively caffeinated energy drinks that have multiple other ingredients. And so she was the one to put the pieces together. And then the doctor said that is absolutely something that could have contributed.”

The Katz family filed suit against Panera Bread Co. for wrongful death, negligence and several other counts, claiming that the company failed to properly warn consumers of its dangerous product. The suit alleges that a 30-ounce serving of Panera’s Charged Lemonade exceeds the caffeine in a 12-ounce Red Bull and a 16-ounce Monster Energy Drink combined.

Panera Bread issued a statement following Sarah Katz’s death.

“We were saddened to learn last week about the tragic passing of Sarah Katz. While our investigation is ongoing, out of an abundance of caution, we have enhanced our existing caffeine disclosure for these beverages at our bakery cafes, on our website and on the Panera app,” a spokesperson for Panera told ABC News in a statement.

Amid mounting pressure, Panera Bread announced on May 7, 2024, that the company would remove its Charged Sips drinks from the menu.

ABC News contacted Panera, which did not answer specific questions about its Charged drinks. However, it said it was undergoing a “menu transformation” and was launching low-sugar and low-caffeine options.

In addition to the Katzes’ lawsuit, the company faced two others: one from the family of a Florida man who allegedly died after drinking three Charged Lemonades, and another from a Rhode Island woman who claimed the drink caused her permanent heart issues.

Panera has denied wrongdoing in all three cases.

Dr. Roshini Malaney, a cardiologist who spoke with ABC News, warns that some energy drinks, due to their caffeine content, can pose a danger to specific individuals.

“Increasing the heart rate can lead to these abnormal heart rhythms that can be fatal,” said Malaney, who did not treat Sarah Katz and is not involved in the Panera lawsuit. “In addition, caffeine can weakly increase that recharging time, so both of these things together can create the perfect storm where someone with an underlying genetic disorder, like Long QT, can go into a fatal heart rhythm.”

The FDA does not mandate any specific warnings on energy drink labels. In response to Panera’s Charged products, the FDA told ABC News they contacted the company. The FDA added that it’s up to the companies to ensure they understand their responsibility to consumers when adding caffeine to their products.

“I’ve seen a lot of patients, not just with genetic cardiac issues, just with normal hearts come in with symptoms and abnormal heart rhythms after consuming energy drinks,” Dr. Malaney said. “So I would definitely say that the FDA should have some sort of labeling.”

Sarah Katz’s parents hope they can save other families from this type of tragedy.

“Nothing changes that our daughter’s gone,” Michael Katz said. “Nothing’s going to bring her back. But if we can help, and help others avoid this, this devastating loss for anyone else I think that will be worth the additional pain to make a positive impact.”

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