Karla Rupp, mother of Bo Rupp, a teen who died after drinking Four Loko, a beverage with 12 percent alcohol., is suing maker of the drink. She is in office of her Attorney John Cooney, 120 N. LaSalle Street, during news conference,Thursday, May 19, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.
Updated: August 28, 2011 12:22AM
The distraught mother of a 15-year-old boy who died after he drank two cans of “Four Loko” caffeinated malt liquor is suing its Chicago-based manufacturer, saying the controversial drink targets underage drinkers and should be banned.
Karla Rupp, 46, says her son Bo Rupp died Sept. 26, a day after he wandered blind drunk into a highway in suburban Washington D.C. and was hit by a car.
Four Loko — nicknamed “blackout in a can” by young drinkers because of its high alcohol content — has been blamed for a spate of alcohol poisoning and binge drinking incidents on college campuses across the nation.
Phusion Projects did a voluntary recall of the product, before it was forced to decaffeinate the drink in November by the FDA, which warned that caffeine was an "unsafe food additive" in their products.
Phusion, which insists it does not market to underage drinkers, says it will fight the lawsuit in court.
But Rupp is urging parents to keep close tabs on their children during prom season, saying even the reformulated Four Loko poses an unacceptable threat because a single can contains as much alcohol as five beers.
“This is not the same ‘forbidden fruit’ that you might have swiped from your parents when you were a kid,” she said through tears at a press conference at the downtown law offices of Cooney and Conway Thursday. “It’s completely different — it’s much, much stronger than the regular beer and wine that adults drink.”
Rupp’s attorneys Jeffrey Simon and John Cooney said Four Loko’s sugary fruit flavors are designed to appeal to teens, to mask the smell and taste of alcohol and to encourage “chugging,” arguing the colorful design of the drinks cans is intended to blend in with non-alcoholic drinks in store coolers and confuse sales clerks and other adults.
The combination of stimulants including caffeine in the original Four Loko recipe gave drinkers an energy boost and masked the effects of the alcohol, Simon said, meaning they “keep drinking, instead of passing out.”
Bo Rupp bought two cans of Four Loko from a gas station convenience store and downed them in the parking lot outside a concert by the country rock band Sugarland on Sept. 25, Simon said. Concert staff noticed that he was severely intoxicated and called his mother to retrieve him, but when Bo stepped out of his mother’s car at a recreation center near his home, he ran out into a busy road and was killed, Rupp’s attorneys say.
Bo, an honor roll student and lacrosse fanatic, drank no other alcoholic drinks and took no drugs, but had a blood alcohol level of 0.19 when he died, the attorneys claim. His mother said, “While I don’t approve of underage drinking of any kind, I believe if Bo had celebrated with more conventional drinks, he would have passed out and ended up with a bad hangover.”
Her lawsuit alleges that Phusion Projects “was careless and negligent in formulating a caffeinated, alcoholic beverage that desensitizes users to the symptoms of intoxication, and increases the potential for alcohol-related harm.”
The suit is the first of its kind to be filed in Illinois, though the parents of 20-year-old Florida State University student Jason Keiran — who shot himself after drinking Four Loko on Sept. 17 last year — previously filed a wrongful death suit.
The deaths and other high-profile poisoning cases have only increased Four Loko’s popularity as a “taboo” product, Simon claimed, pointing to websites where teens boast of “getting Loko’d.”
Phusion Projects released a statement, saying it was “extremely saddened by this tragedy and our thoughts are with the Rupp family.”
“This accident, and others like it, speak to the serious, societal concerns regarding the misuse of alcohol – alcohol abuse and underage drinking are problems we would all like to see discussed and solved.”
The makers said they have “a vested interest – both personal and professional – in assuring the continued responsible consumption of our products,” adding that “Those that sell or provide alcohol to minors should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Phusion has previously compared Four Loko to popular mixed caffeinated drinks like Red Bull and vodka or rum and Coke, blaming the need to change its recipe on a “politically charged regulatory environment.”