[Update: A month after I posted the below article, researchers at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting presented a cardiac MRI study showing that consumption of energy drinks “increased peak strain and peak systolic strain rates in the heart’s left ventricle,” which could potentially trigger arrhythmias.]
Few headlines are as cringeworthy to upstanding trial lawyers as those which include a phrase like “$85 million lawsuit alleges,” and earlier this week the New York Daily News reported “Brooklyn man killed by drinking Red Bull, $85 million lawsuit alleges.”
As Eric Turkewitz aptly explains about the “$85 million dollar” Red Bull wrongful death lawsuit, this practice is prohibited in many venues — like New York, where the case was filed — and yet lawyers do it anyway, either out of ignorance about the rules or to attract attention. At least here, though, our attention is drawn to what looks like an interesting case.
First, let’s start with the medicine: is it possible Red Bull contributed to the death of 33-year-old Cory Terry during a basketball game? I think the answer is clearly “maybe.” The article says his death certificate lists the cause of death as “idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy.” “Dilated cardiomyopathy” is generally an enlargement of the heart’s left ventricle, which affects pumping, and “idiopathic” is medical speak for “I don’t know what happened to this patient.” (“Idiopathic” is a mashup of the ancient Greek words idios and pathos, together meaning “one’s own suffering.”)
In the medical field, idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy is a complicated, frustrating problem. Consider this 2012 research article:
Despite recent advances in the management of patients with heart failure, morbidity and mortality rates remain high. Common causes of heart failure are ischaemic heart disease, uncontrolled hypertension and valvular disease. However, in up to 50 % of the cases its exact cause remains initially unknown; this condition is called idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
We thus don’t know the cause of half of all heart failures, but we do know that stimulants, particularly cardiac stimulants like caffeine, can raise heart rates and cause palpitations and arrhythmias and thus can contribute towards heart failure in patients with cardiomyopathy. As The Cardiomyopathy Association says, “General advice is that people should minimise their caffeine intake.”
In sum, while we might not know the precise nature of his underlying heart problems, it is plausible — I would say likely — that the stimulants in the Red Bull contributed to his heart failure.
But does that make Red Bull responsible for his death?