Faced with increased regulatory and consumer pressure as well as a lawsuit, Monster Beverage Corp. went on the offensive to deflect accusations that its products offered more than just a liquid jolt.
The Corona energy drink maker, responding Monday to the lawsuit, said there was “no medical or scientific evidence” to support a finding that its energy drinks contributed to a 14-year-old Maryland girl’s death.
The family of Anais Fournier accused Monster of negligence and wrongful death in a lawsuit filed in October. The teenager died after consuming two 24-ounce cans of Monster beverages within a 24-hour period.
The case raised the level of concern from legislators, parents and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about a host of possible health issues related to the consumption of energy drinks.
The spotlight on the issues has resulted in consumer perception of many brands in the $12.5-billion energy drink industry to tank in recent months.
Though Monster’s earnings increased in its fourth quarter, rising 5% to nearly $68 million, its stock has suffered, sliding roughly 15% in the last year.
On Monday, the Corona company’s stock fell 1.7%, or 85 cents, to close at $49.81 a share.
Monster said Monday that it retained a group of medical experts to examine records for Anais Fournier, who drank two 24-ounce Monster beverages within a 24-hour period in December 2011 and then went into cardiac arrest several hours later. Her family sued, alleging negligence and wrongful death.
But Monster said the physicians -- including a cardiac pathologist, an emergency room physician, a coroner and a toxicologist -- found “conclusively that there is no medical, scientific or factual evidence” to support claims that its energy drink portfolio “contributed to, let alone was the cause of” the girl’s death.
The group, which included Dr. Michael H. Forman of the Tri-City Emergency Medical Group in San Diego County, also negated a report from the Maryland medical examiner’s office linking Fournier’s death to “caffeine toxicity,” according to Monster.
The medical examiner’s report did not include blood tests to measure caffeine levels, Forman said. A 24-ounce can of Monster Energy contains 240 milligrams of caffeine -- less than the 260 milligrams of caffeine in a 12-ounce cup of Starbucks brewed coffee, according to Monster.
Fournier was also known to drink caffeinated coffee each morning while also regularly consuming energy drinks, “all without incident,” according to Monster. Medical records also showed she “suffered from several heart conditions” and had a family history of heart problems.
“She had a diseased heart,” said Forman, who called the focus on caffeine a “red herring.”
“It had nothing to do with a modest amount of caffeine she consumed,” he said. “That amount of caffeine would be safe for anybody.”
The lawsuit is still in its discovery phase and depositions aren’t scheduled until the spring, said Daniel J. Callahan, a Santa Ana lawyer for Monster.
“What’s going to happen to the lawsuit is difficult to ascertain,” he said. “We’ve shown there’s no merit to it. Will they dismiss it? We hope so.”
But that’s unlikely, said Kevin I. Goldberg, a lawyer for Fournier’s parents. In a statement, he accused Monster of “attempting to mislead the public in order to avoid accountability.”
“In America, a jury of our peers determines justice,” he said. “Not doctors paid by billion-dollar corporations to attend press conferences.”
Sales of energy drinks and shots have been riding high in recent years, growing 60% from 2008 to 2012, according to estimates from research group Packaged Facts. But last summer, concerns about the category started up in earnest.
New York Atty. Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman subpoenaed Monster, 5-Hour Energy maker Living Essentials and Amp producer PepsiCo Inc. as his office investigated the industry’s ingredient disclosure process. Consumer Reports released data in the fall showing that among the energy drink brands that disclose caffeine counts, several miscalculated the true caffeine content in the container.
Around the same time, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called on the FDA to scrutinize common energy drink ingredients such as guarana, taurine and ginseng. They also requested better guidelines on energy drink classifications, arguing that many products are sold as dietary supplements to maximize the amount of allowable caffeine but then are marketed as beverages.
The FDA said 5-Hour Energy drinks have been cited in 13 deaths in the last four years. Monster was cited in five deaths in one year. Regulators are looking into the reports.
Earlier this year, a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded that the number of emergency room visits involving energy drinks doubled to 20,783 in 2011 from 10,068 in 2008. In each year, 18- to 39-year-olds were the largest age group involved, according to data from the federal unit’s Drug Abuse Warning Network database.
Monster called the report “highly misleading” and said it “does not support any conclusion that energy drinks are unsafe for consumers.” The company said that consumers have safely downed more than 8 billion cans of Monster Energy since 2002.
Still, the public attention caused the consumer perception of Monster to plunge this fall to its lowest levels since 2009, according to survey service YouGov BrandIndex. Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy also tanked.
Some companies are taking advantage of the confusion to market energy drinks that claim to go lighter on sugar and caffeine. Brands such as Solixir, Guayaki and Honest Tea say their drinks generate a boost partially through ingredients such as yerba mate, ginseng and angelica root.
Monster, meanwhile, launched mini 8-ounce multipacks earlier this year. The company, however, is deferring the launch of its proposed zero-calorie Ultra Pink line, reportedly targeted to females.