By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The parents of a 15-year-old boy who died last fall after drinking a controversial beverage that combined caffeine and alcohol sued the Chicago-based manufacturer on Thursday.
The parents of John "Bo" Donald Rupp, III, sued Phusion Projects, maker of Four Loko, for their son's September 26, 2010 death, alleging that Phusion knew the product was dangerous and targeted underage drinkers.
The Rupps say that Bo became confused and drunk after drinking two cans of Four Loko, wandered into a highway in suburban Washington, D.C. and was hit by a car.
Phusion said it voluntarily removed the stimulants caffeine, guarana and taurine from Four Loko last November. The move came ahead of an expected crackdown by U.S. regulators.
The product, sometimes called "blackout in a can," comes in fruit flavors and brightly colored cans. One 23.5 ounce can is comparable to drinking five or six beers.
Karla Rupp, the teen's mother, said in a statement that her son was an honors student who enjoyed playing lacrosse. He drank Four Loko before a concert. His behavior became so erratic and agitated that venue staff feared for his safety and called his parents to take him home, Karla Rupp said.
After he was driven home, the paranoid and disoriented teen leaped out of the car and ran off into the night, while his parents attempted to find him, according to the lawsuit. At some point, Rupp collapsed, fell or sat down on a busy highway and was struck by a car, the suit said.
"These are not beverages that are going to be enjoyed with a nice meal," Karla Rupp said. "They're made just for kids who don't know their limits, many of whom aren't even old enough to be drinking."
Health experts say that mixing alcohol and caffeine is dangerous because the stimulant masks the effects of the alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they would have otherwise stopped.
In a statement Phusion said that the company is "extremely saddened by this tragedy," and that it plans to "vigorously" defend the case in the courts rather than in the press.
"We work very hard to ensure our products are consumed safely and responsibly by adults over the age of 21," the company statement said.
Four Loko grabbed headlines last fall when nine college students in Washington state were hospitalized after drinking quantities of Four Loko and similar beverages off-campus.
(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune)