18 July 2019
A Connecticut man is suing Juul Labs for causing him to suffer a massive stroke after he became addicted to the company’s products as a teenager. The case marks the first time the e-cigarette company has been sued for a medical issue this severe.
Maxwell Berger, 22, developed an addiction to Juul products during the summer of 2015 as he was finishing his last year of high school, the lawsuit says. By 2017, Berger was taking puffs of his Juul as often as every ten minutes, causing him to go through two cartridges every day. That July, Berger had a massive hemorrhagic stroke, which required three brain surgeries and more than 100 days in the hospital, the lawsuit states. It left him with “catastrophic and permanent injuries” such as left side paralysis, speech impairment and a 50% loss of vision from both eyes.
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein—a San Francisco law firm that’s won class action suits against large corporations and big verdicts against tobacco companies—filed the suit in the California Superior Court for San Francisco County. The firm accused Juul of wrongful conduct that led to Berger’s injuries. Specific charges include fraudulent concealment and intentional misrepresentation of the products and their risks, as well as negligence in promoting and selling to young people under age 26.
The suit paints Berger as one of the many teenagers who succumbed to Juul’s viral marketing that made it seem “fun, healthy and cool.” When Berger first tried it, the device had already “become ubiquitous among his high school friends,” the suit claims. Within weeks, he had developed nicotine addiction and would take restroom breaks during family dinners in order to take a hit from his Juul, a battery-powered device which looks like a USB drive and converts a nicotine-based liquid into vapor for inhalation. The company previously said that each cartridge, or “pod,” contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, but it has since removed that information from its website.
Juul is intended as an alternative to cigarettes for adult smokers only, spokesman Ted Kwong told Forbes in a statement. “We do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product. To this end, we have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission. To the extent these cases allege otherwise, they are without merit and we will defend our mission throughout this process.”
The argument that San Francisco-based Juul intentionally misled consumers through its marketing mirrors other lawsuits that have taken aim at the company. Juul is currently a defendant on seven federal cases in Alabama, California, Florida and New York, five of which involve plaintiffs who are teenagers. One lawsuit alleges a 15-year-old developed seizures from using Juul, but the others don’t go further than holding the company responsible for nicotine addiction.
The lawsuit by Berger is the biggest allegation of medical harm that has so far been leveled against Juul. It signals that other claims of serious medical problems from the four-year old company could follow as its presence increases. The company’s extraordinary growth has resulted in its capture of a three-fourths share of the e-cigarette market, according to Nielsen.
Berger’s backstory in the complaint reads the same as the plaintiffs in those earlier suits—had they known the truth about Juul, they wouldn’t have started using the products. Instead, Juul “preyed on youth” through ads of young models that exuded sex appeal and a sense of belonging, the complaint says. “The teen vaping was by design, not by accident,” the lawsuit states, arguing that Juul entered the market on a loophole before the FDA explicitly placed regulations on e-cigarettes.
“We are hoping that Juul takes responsibility for its conduct in targeting and luring young people to use its very dangerous products, and that they are held accountable for fair and reasonable compensation to this young man,” said Lieff Cabraser attorney Sarah London, who represents Berger.
Lieff Cabraser earlier this year secured for a Florida smoker a $27 million award against Philip Morris, the tobacco division of Altria. Last December, Altria purchased a 35% stake in Juul, elevating the latter’s valuation to $38 billion.
Berger is seeking monetary damages to be determined at the trial. Besides federal cases, Juul is also subject to lawsuits in various California state courts including San Francisco and Los Angeles. Berger’s case, and additional ones if they are filed, could be consolidated with these suits and assigned to a single judge.
A recent study has linked strokes to e-cigarette use. Researchers from the University of Kansas School of Medicine used data from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-administered survey of 400,000 individuals, and found that compared to non-users, e-cigarette users have a 71% greater risk of stroke. The study comes at a time when scientific findings on e-cigarettes have been highly contentious, much like tobacco studies were in the past. A study that linked vaping to heart attack risk has been the subject of a spat between two tobacco researchers.
Amid mounting pressure over its role as the main driver of a surge in teen vaping, Juul added a nicotine warning label to its products and announced an action planin November that included a suspension of flavored product sales to retail stores and the closure of its Facebook and Instagram accounts. Critics say this is too little, too late. A CDC report found that the amount of high schoolers who used Juul jumped from 11.7% in 2017 to 20.8% in 2018. “The damage was done, and it was too late for Mr. Berger,” the complaint states, adding that the company still has not disclosed the health risks associated with using its products.
“We hope the lawsuit can help get the word out about the dangers of this product,” London said. “We hope this doesn’t happen to anyone again.”
Corrections & Clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect that Juul intends its devices as an alternative to cigarette smoking, not as cigarette-cessation devices.