On Tuesday, lawyers filed what appeared to be the first-ever legal complaint accusing embattled vape powerhouse JUUL Labs of being directly responsible for the death of a teenager.
San Francisco–based firm Levin Simes Abrams, which specializes in cases dealing with Uber and Lyft, as well as e-cigarette explosions, is representing the plaintiff, Lisa Marie Vail, the mother of 18-year-old Daniel Wakefield, who passed away due to "breathing complications" in 2018. At the time, he had been staying with his father, who found him unresponsive on the sofa when he went to get a glass of water in the middle of the night.
"We anticipated this being the next big thing," Mahzad Hite, an attorney at Levin Simes Abrams, told VICE. "As the science started to develop, and as the crisis took off, now doctors are seeing these issues and finally asking their patients if they vape."
That "crisis" is the full-blown vape panic that started this summer and has stretched into the fall, with a bevy of personal-injury lawsuits following in its wake. As of October 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that almost 1,300 vape-related illnesses had been reported, with at least 26 people dying as a result. Meanwhile, thanks in part to relative inaction so far on the part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), states have begun issuing temporary bans on flavored, or sometimes all, e-cigarettes.
JUUL, the vaping behemoth that dominates the U.S. marketplace, and which is owned in part by the Big Tobacco producer Altria, has reportedly been the subject of some criminal probes and has already been accused of breaking federal regulations in regards to its marketing practices. (JUUL has long denied that it targeted teenagers.) On Monday, the New York Times also reported that a longtime smoker in Nebraska who transitioned to vaping to quit smoking combustible cigarettes had passed away from a lung illness tied to vaping. He had apparently used a handful of products, including Mistic, blu, and JUUL, and only vaped nicotine—an important piece of information, as many of the vape-linked fatalities have been tied to THC.
If nothing else, the new suit suggested vape companies were only just getting a taste of their potential liability.
According to the suit, Wakefield was an otherwise active teenager until he began JUULing when he was 15 years old. His mood and behavior changed as a result, causing him to lose interest in academics (he dropped out of high school and sought his GED), and, in one case, chuck a mini fridge from the top floor of his house when he wasn't able to vape, it said. Wakefield was attracted, the attorneys alleged, to JUUL's "candy-like flavors, sleek and discreet design, and its representations that it was a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes." (In addition to wrongful death, the suit also accuses JUUL of, among other things, defective design, negligence, and intentional misrepresentation of its products' safety.)
The child of smokers, Wakefield even reportedly consulted his mother about his vaping, saying that he "read materials indicating JUUL was safe and did not pose the health risks that accompany combustible cigarettes." No more than a year after starting to JUUL, the suit states, Wakefield was hospitalized for a few days—because of "breathing and lung complications"—and staff even went so far as to provide him with nicotine patches during his brief stay.
It's worth noting that Wakefield did suffer from asthma, and a medical examiner determined that's what he died from, according to another attorney behind the suit, Angela Nehmens, who said he did not smoke regular cigarettes before taking up JUULing.
"We don't have the autopsy report yet, so we don't know the full analysis," Nehmens said. "The death certificate lists asthma as cause of death, unknown whether tobacco use contributed."
Vail's lawyers insisted Wakefield's asthma was not a persistent problem in his young adult life, and that Wakefield didn't even really use an inhaler. (The lawsuit itself cites studies that have claimed e-cigarettes could possibly cause—or at least exacerbate—asthma.)
At the time of publication, JUUL Labs had not yet responded to a request for comment.
However, at least one doctor and tobacco-addiction expert who reviewed the lawsuit for VICE said that it would be difficult, at least from a medical perspective, to attribute the death to a vaping product in a situation like this one. (Wakefield was also cremated, complicating any kind of reassessment.)
"In order to make a judgment, one would need to see the autopsy report, the results of a drug screen performed post-mortem, and the detailed records of his prior hospitalization," said Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University. "I think it's premature to conclude that his death has anything to do with JUUL use at this point."
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