FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. — The family of a Jacksonville-area man is suing a popular restaurant chain, Panera Bread, after they say Panera’s ‘Charged Lemonade’ drink contributed to his death.
The lawsuit was filed Monday afternoon on behalf of Dennis Brown’s family.
Dennis Brown, 46, was the friendly face at your grocery store checkout line, as a Publix bagger for nearly 17 years. He had a loving family, plenty of friends, and he was well-known for making people feel special.
“I will tell you Dennis and I were pretty close,” Deanne Burgess said. Burgess was Dennis’ “supportive living coach.”
“I’ve never met anyone like him,” Burgess said.
He was living with chromosomal deficiency disorder, developmental delay, high blood pressure, and ADHD. However, he walked to and from work every day on Fleming Island in Clay County. He was working to eat healthier, and he lived independently with the help of Burgess and his other coaches.
One of the things Burgess and Brown did regularly was go out to lunch. Brown liked going to Panera Bread, thinking it was a healthier option to other fast-food restaurants. The two would go several times a week.
“I always looked forward to being with him,” Burgess said. “I spoke to him every day. I could probably write a book on the text messages and the voicemails that we’ve talked back and forth about: his family, the things he wants to do in the future.”
Brown died on October 9, 2023. His family and friends believed his death was entirely preventable.
Three weeks before his death, Dennis began ordering the franchise’s “Charged Lemonade.” On the day he died, he had just left Panera Bread on Fleming Island, according to the lawsuit.
Burgess got the call. “I called the detective back, and he said ‘I believe we have somebody that you work with that is deceased on the side of the road in Fleming Island,’” Burgess said.
The death certificate said Brown died of cardiac arrest.
“The only thing that had changed in Dennis’ life, in terms of his health, is that he started drinking this drink,” Elizabeth Crawford said. She’s the attorney representing Brown’s family.
Action News Jax told you back in October, Crawford filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sarah Katz’s family. The 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student died after drinking the “Charged Lemonade.” Katz suffered from a heart condition and usually avoided caffeine. Her friends and family said she likely didn’t know the drink was caffeinated. Brown’s family believes he didn’t know either.
“Dennis did not buy energy drinks or anything like that when we would grocery shop,” Burgess said. “Maybe a ginger ale sometimes or a tea.”
Something else you should know about Brown: he did everything in threes.
“It was part of his kind of control in his disability that he liked to control how much he was drinking,” Crawford said. “And, he always did things in multiples of three. So, he had three of those drinks and he texted his brother to let him know that he was about to walk home.”
The “Charged Lemonade” sat side by side with other teas and fountain sodas. It was also part of the franchise’s “unlimited sip club.” Since our story first aired, Panera has taken the drink out of the fountain soda area and put it behind the counter. Now, there’s a warning when you go to order it at a kiosk. But, this all happened after Brown’s death.
The caffeine content of a Panera “Charged Lemonade” ranges from 260 milligrams for a regular-sized drink to 390 milligrams for a large. For reference, a 12-ounce Red Bull has 114 milligrams of caffeine, and a 16-ounce Monster energy drink has 160 milligrams of caffeine.
“He’s dead. What other explanation do we have for his death?” Crawford said. “They should have adequately warned about this product, and they failed to do that. And because of that, Dennis is no longer here.”
The lawsuit states because of the “unreasonably dangerous and defective design of Panera Charged Lemonade, as described throughout the complaint, Dennis suffered a cardiac event which resulted in his death.”
It goes to say Brown ordered the drinks on September 28, October 2, October 4, October 5, October 7, and on the day of his death, October 9. Text messages confirm his order from the franchise. We also know, from friends, Brown habitually orders three drinks during each visit.
“I think this lemonade is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I think for two reasons. I think it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing because it’s sold at Panera Bread, and I think that the reasonable person equates Panera Bread to the healthier alternative,” Crawford said. “Then, it’s also sold as a lemonade. And, I think that people think generally lemonade is innocuous.”
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The lawsuit states “as a result of negligence, recklessness, willful and wantonness of Defendants, the individual Plaintiffs suffered the loss of services, society, comfort and companionship of Dennis.”
“He’s a sibling. He’s a brother. He’s a son,” Burgess said. “He’s a cousin. He’s a nephew. He has amazing family.”
And, his family wants to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Panera Bread statement:
“Panera expresses our deepest sympathy for Mr. Brown’s family. Based on our investigation we believe his unfortunate passing was not caused by one of the company’s products. We view this lawsuit, which was filed by the same law firm as a previous claim, to be equally without merit. Panera stands firmly by the safety of our products.”