A Pennsylvania state judge has cleared the way for jurors to consider claims against an online herbal supplement seller over the death of a Philadelphia-area man from a heart attack linked to an apparent kratom overdose.
Judge Edward Wright in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on Thursday rejected arguments from SoCal Herbal Remedies LLC that Caleb Sturgis was a knowledgeable user of the controversial supplement whose social media posts showed that he would not have heeded warnings about potential side effects.
Judge Wright did not issue an opinion outlining his rationale for denying SoCal’s summary
Sturgis’ family filed suit in March 2019 a little less than a year after the 25-year-old died as he drove to work from his home in Chester County.
Authorities initially believed Sturgis died as a result of a heart attack, but subsequent medical testing revealed that his body contained high levels of the active ingredient in kratom.
According to Sturgis’ family, the man had been using kratom on a regular basis for several years prior to his death.
Kratom is a plant native to parts of Southeast Asia. While it is marketed as a natural treatment for pain, depression and anxiety, and as a possible tool to combat addiction, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has raised alarms in recent years that the supplement has been linked to dozens of fatalities.
The FDA has likened kratom to an opioid, saying in a February 2018 statement that compounds in the plant carry the possibility for addiction and abuse.
Despite the agency’s stated concern, however, there have been no federal regulations so far
relating to kratom’s sale or use.
SoCal filed a motion for summary judgment in May, arguing that Sturgis wouldn’t have heeded any warnings even if the company had included them on its product.
It pointed specifically to posts Sturgis made in a kratom group on Facebook stating that “the DEA should just stop trying to control what goes in our bodies. Let everyone make their own mistakes.”
Additionally, the company noted another Sturgis post in which he said he took regular two-week breaks from using kratom in an effort to ensure that he wasn’t addicted.
“Caleb Sturgis had knowledge prior to his death of the possibility of addiction,” SoCal said in its summary judgment motion. “A failure to warn cannot stand when the alleged danger is already known by the consumer.”
But Sturgis’s family shot back that Sturgis had been misinformed about the purported dangers of kratom as a result of SoCal’s failure to provide any warnings.
“Caleb’s misunderstandings regarding the safety of kratom were fueled by the total lack of
warnings or safety information provided by SoCal,” the family argued in a brief.
The family pointed to testimony from SoCal’s two co-owners that the company was aware of the FDA’s concerns regarding kratom but that they had continued to sell the product anyway and
without adding any warnings, aside from a suggested dosage size that appeared on its packaging for a period of a month back in 2017.
Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC, said he looked forward to bringing the case to trial.
On behalf of Caleb’s family, we are pleased the court denied summary judgment on the product liability issues as well as punitive damages, making it clear that SoCal will have to answer to the jury as to why it sold kratom — a dangerous herbal product with absolutely no warnings or safety information whatsoever — to Caleb Sturgis, a product that led to his death.
Tony Sherri, an attorney with Sherr Law Group LLP representing SoCal, said he believed the
company would ultimately beat the claims in front of a jury.
“While we are disappointed in not receiving summary judgment, SoCal remains optimistic that it will prevail at trial,” he said in a statement to Law360.
A firm trial date in the case has not yet been set.
Sturgis is represented by Robert Mongeluzzi and Samuel Dordick of Saltz Mongeluzzi & BendeskyPC.
SoCal is represented by Tony Sherr and Lisa Ondich of Sherr Law Group LLP.
The case is Scott Sturgis v. SoCal Herbal Remedies LLC, case number 190102001, before the
Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.
–Editing by Rich Mills.
Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Sturgis family’s attorney.