A Fatal Caffeine Overdose and the Dishonest Press Blitz About It

Michael GrossmanJuly 31, 2017 4 minutes

When people or companies hurt others intentionally or accidentally, they are accountable per the law's decree. One could say that "blaming people" as a broad definition of the law is part of how America works, in that wrongdoers should be held responsible for their actions. As a law firm we understand that; after all, we're in the business of blaming people. However, lawyers are trained to know which people should take the blame, and that training makes a lot of difference. When laymen launch a witch hunt, things get out of hand quickly. That's how we got campaigns against video games, rock music, and even Red Dye #40, just to name a few.

These moral panics need to end. Of course people and companies that commit misconduct should face consequences--nobody's saying they shouldn't. I'm only cautioning that getting the most accurate results requires that patience be exercised before fingers are pointed, and that suggestion goes double for media outlets that stir up public panics. Case in point: A teen passed away after an overdose of caffeine, and the press promptly lost their minds.

Here's What We Know.

Recent news releases indicate that 16-year-old Davis Allen Cripe suffered "a caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia," according to the coroner of Richland County, South Carolina. Here's the details related by the news:

After ingesting a caffè latte, a large Diet Mountain Dew, and an unnamed energy drink over a period of approximately two hours, Cripe allegedly collapsed in a school classroom at approximately 2:28 p.m. on April 26. He died about an hour later at a nearby hospital.

According to the coroner, the teen was healthy and had no known history of any medical problems that could have been aggravated by caffeine. The coroner's autopsy also did not reveal any undiagnosed heart conditions. Furthermore, Davis was known among his peers for encouraging abstinence from drugs and alcohol, suggesting the caffeine did not interact with any other substances.

When interviewed, the president of the South Carolina Coroner's Association said this is the only case of caffeine overdose he knows of in the state's history.

The Press Isn't Playing Fair.

What happened is unquestionably tragic. The following is in no way meant to diminish the event itself, or the life of Davis Cripe.

It's a pretty common refrain among critics that modern media is in the business of stirring up fear, which is why networks are generally happy to thump people over the head with panicky headlines like "Rabid Killer Bee Swarms in Your Mailbox" and "Are Breakfast Cereals Poisonous and Radioactive? More at 11." News media doesn't make a lot of time for subtlety these days. Regardless of their clumsiness, though, the principle involved isn't a bad one--in an uncertain world, it's better to be aware of possible dangers than to stroll blithely through a deadly cereal aisle. The problem in this story is that when a clear threat isn't present, the current strategy is to invent one. The news is suggesting there's some sort of "hidden crisis" lurking behind this incident--a conspiracy of overdoses, perpetrated by the villains of "Big Caffeine." Look at this headline about the accident:

Copied directly as written. Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Does anything about that seem intellectually dishonest to anyone else? The story itself is a little more even-handed about the situation, including a few select quotes that dispute the headline (emphasis mine):

  • "The autopsy showed no 'unfounded' or 'undiagnosed heart condition,' said [the coroner], who was careful not to call Davis' death a caffeine overdose."
  • "'A cup of coffee, a can of soda isn't going to cause this thing...It's the amount and also the time frame in which these caffeinated beverages are consumed that can put you at risk."
  • "'You can have five people line up right here and all of them do the exact same thing that happened with him that day and it may not have any kind of effect on them at all...'"

I'm not interested in defending soda companies or McDonald's (the source of the caffè latte and an institution with some history of questionable coffee), or suggesting that their products aren't unhealthy. Caffeine, sugar, and the "extra ingredients" often found in energy drinks (taurine, guarana) can definitely throw a body's rhythm and chemistry off to dire result. However, saying "Caffeine killed him," full stop, ignores the other variables of the situation.

Think about it like this: is it more likely that Davis Cripe found a dangerous combination of caffeinated beverages, all FDA-approved for general resale, that could be expected to kill most teenagers, or did he happen to find the unfortunate combination that reacted poorly with his unique physiology? Either could be true, but one is much more likely. It is certainly the case that caffeine and energy drinks do different things to different people. A Red Bull gives me some extra pep on a slow morning, but they just make my coworker feel sluggish and groggy--the exact opposite of their purpose.

For news outlets it must be tempting to say that "caffeine" as some monolith is a scourge on society. That'll grab ratings, which is really what network news seems to worry about; to get viewer numbers and market share, they need tragedy that really pops. That kind of obtuse sensationalism can pointlessly rile readers and audiences up, though. With stories like this as a catalyst, outraged masses protest caffeine and lobby against its corporate distributors. Politicians urge parents to "talk to their children about energy drinks," as though they're outlawed Schedule II stimulants. It seems as though the necessary education should be more about moderation than elimination, though; it wasn't caffeine itself, but a lot of caffeine over a short period of time, that triggered fatal arrhythmia in a healthy young man with a bright future. It's a tragic lesson in pacing one's self, but not an indictment of a substance judged safe by the FDA.

What's the Takeaway?

I wish this had never happened, of course, but it does shed light on a larger concept: The pursuit of justice is a matter of law, and must be done with respect to facts. Trying to shoehorn a "villain" into every scenario is disingenuous and ignores the idea that most things are more complicated than that. News sources should absolutely recognize their duty only to convey unbiased information--facts--without leading people toward inaccurate conclusions. It's also unnecessary to turn every death into a reason to crusade against generally-innocuous products. Everybody wants to rush to the forefront of "the next big crisis," but realistically if everything is a crisis then nothing is.

Finding and punishing a culprit is something often best left to professionals well-versed in the law, like enforcement officials and attorneys. It's their job, and a little less mob mentality would help them do it more effectively.