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Chester County family sues kratom distributor in death of son

Caleb Sturgis, 25, of West Chester, died from a fatal heart attack on June 27, 2018, after he drank tea made with kratom.

Caleb J. Sturgis, 25, allegedly suffered a fatal heart attack in June 2018 after ingesting the herbal supplement Kratom.
Caleb J. Sturgis, 25, allegedly suffered a fatal heart attack in June 2018 after ingesting the herbal supplement Kratom.Read moreCourtesy of Sturgis family

The family of a Chester County man who died in June from an overdose of kratom has filed a wrongful-death suit against the company that sold its son the unregulated herbal product.

Caleb Sturgis, 25, of West Chester, died on June 27 after he drank tea made with kratom, according to the lawsuit against SoCal Herbal Remedies of Big Bear City, Calif., filed Wednesday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

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 use.

“SoCal Herbal Remedies firmly believes it bears no liability for the unfortunate of death of Mr. Sturgis,” said Tony Sherr, attorney for the company.

Kratom, derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree that is part of the coffee family, has been linked to at least four deaths in the Philadelphia region. It has been touted by users, businesses, and advocacy groups as a product that can help relieve pain, gives a mild energy boost, and ease the pain of opioid withdrawal.

Sturgis is the son of Scott Sturgis, an editor with the Inquirer, and Lori Chernisky Sturgis, of West Chester.

The family is asking for more than $50,000, according to the lawsuit.

The kratom industry has perpetuated a myth that the product is not lethal, Robert Mongeluzzi, the attorney for the family, said at a Thursday news conference.

“Kratom kills and kratom killed Caleb Sturgis," said Mongeluzzi. “It is addictive; it is deadly.”

Mongeluzzi held up the packet from SoCal Herbal Remedies that Caleb’s parents found on the kitchen table the day he died. He pointed out there were no dosage instructions. The only warning was to keep out of the hands of children.

“It provided none of the information consumers need to make safe choices,” he said.

SoCal Herbal Remedies has shipped 25,000 packets of kratom to users in Pennsylvania, Mongeluzzi said.

Tanya Sturgis, Caleb’s older sister, said that her brother changed after he began to use kratom. He became tired and would cancel activities, she said.

“He wasn’t himself,” she said. “But we didn’t know kratom would kill him,”

An estimated three million to five million people use kratom, according to the American Kratom Association, a Colorado-based nonprofit founded in 2014 to promote the product.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency have warned the public repeatedly the product is not safe. Several states and cities have banned the sale of kratom.

The FDA has said that mitragynine is an addictive substance that acts on the brain’s opioid receptors and poses a risk of addiction. and that there is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use. In September, the agency issued a new warning to two companies that are making unproven medical claims about kratom.

In 2016, the DEA announced it would reclassify kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, similar to heroin or marijuana, but industry groups were able to keep kratom on store shelves.

Mongeluzzi said the wrongful-death lawsuit was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, but kratom has been the target of legal action elsewhere.

In September, a Florida woman sued three Pinellas County bars serving kratom tea, alleging her 19-year-old daughter “suffered frontal lobe damage to her brain,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In April, a North Dakota woman sued an online company that allegedly sold her kratom contaminated with salmonella.

In April, salmonella infections linked to kratom sickened at least 132 people in 38 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at the time. In November, the FDA issued an advisory after finding “disturbingly high levels” of lead and nickel in kratom products.

Last Friday, Sunstone Organics voluntarily recalled two lots of kratom products that were found to potentially be contaminated with salmonella, according to the FDA.