Parents in Chester County, PA are suing kratom distributor SoCal Herbal Remedies. Their son, Caleb Sturgis, died in a car accident in 2018. He was 25. The Chester County Coroner ruled the cause of death “acute mitragynine intoxication”.
In the typical sensationalist reporting, stretching itself out of context, ignoring the blaring questions raised by this case, Mari A. Schaefer acts as Drug War stenographer in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Sturgis was driving to work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Chester County when his car struck a curb and flipped over. The Chester County coroner ruled his death was from “acute mitragynine intoxication,” the active ingredient in kratom. No other drugs were found in his system, save for the amount of caffeine contained in a cup of coffee. Sturgis had been taking the supplement for an energy boost, his family said.
In the lawsuit, the Sturgis family contends that SoCal Herbal Remedies failed to provide information on the risks of using kratom and did not attempt to test the product to make sure it was safe for usehttps://www.philly.com/health/kratom-deaths-mitragynine-overdose-opioids-herbal-tea-20190307.html
Well that opens a refrigerator full of cans of worms, doesn’t it? How did the accident actually occur? Was kratom really even a factor? Are deaths of drunk drivers from injuries sustained in car accidents ruled “acute alcohol intoxication”? Can I sue Budweiser if one of my family members is killed in a drunk driving accident? It seems to me that alcohol poisoning and a car accident caused by drunk driving are two different causes of death. Are we sure the caffeine found in Sturgis’s system didn’t play a role in the accident? None of these questions are answered.
Journalist Nick Wing, at the time working for the Huffington Post, requested autopsy and toxicology reports from the Chester County Coroner Christina VandePol. The coroner denied his request. Wing then filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. OOR granted the appeal, overruling the coroner’s decision. The coroner then filed to appeal OOR’s appeal, essentially forcing Wing to engage in a legal battle to access the toxicology report.
For some reason, VandePol doesn’t want the public to see the toxicology results. Here’s Nick Wing’s twitter thread about it:
I asked Wing if they went ahead with the lawsuit. He responded this morning:
Interestingly enough, Wing and the reporter who wrote the above Inquirer story got into a back and forth about the issue of the toxicology reports on Twitter back in November.
Schaefer did not respond to Wing’s last tweet. She clearly dodged the question about mitragynine levels because she, herself, did not have the results of the toxicology report, only the results of the manner and cause of death. Why this journalist is acting like the coroner’s press secretary is anybody’s guess.
The more that’s uncovered about this tragic case, the more it seems like a family being misled by those with a Drug War mentality. The Sturgis family certainly cannot be blamed given how new and unknown kratom is to the general public, the weirdness of the coroner’s statements, and the way the press — other than Nick Wing — are lazily glossing over important questions.
I’m not sure the grieving family even has a case here. The attorney representing the family, Robert Mongeluzzi, said at a press conference that SoCal Herbal Remedies “provided none of the information consumers need to make safe choices”. Making medical claims on kratom packages is illegal according to the FDA, so I don’t see how a company could be held liable for an adult man’s individual choice to consume kratom and drive. I’m not sure why an experienced Philadelphia civil attorney doesn’t understand this.
Video of the press conference where Mongeluzzi made this statement shows the attorney holding a bag of “White Vietnam” purchased by Sturgis. This is a white vein leaf powder strain, not even an extract. So until we can see the coroner’s report it’s unclear how much mitragynine was in Sturgis’s system.
What makes this case even weaker, from a different angle, is social media posts exist where Caleb Sturgis talked about taking so much kava that he couldn’t stand, and also abusing the antidepressant tianeptine.
Unfortunately for the family’s case, this seems to show that Sturgis knew exactly what “overboard” meant for him, and deliberately went there with multiple substances in the past. Whether the car accident has to do with any substance at all is impossible to determine without a toxicology report and analysis of how the accident occurred. People have deadly car accidents all the time that don’t involve substance use.
One positive result of the case is the trial hopefully will force VandePol to release the autopsy and toxicology reports to the public, as Nick Wing pointed out recently.