Lawsuit filed in case of teen who died after eating spicy chip as part of online challenge

BOSTON — (AP) — A lawsuit was filed Thursday against Hershey, Walgreens and several others in the case of a Massachusetts teen who died after he participated in a spicy tortilla chip challenge that was widely promoted on social media.

Harris Wolobah, a 10th grader from the city of Worcester, died Sept. 1, 2023, after eating the Paqui chip as part of the manufacturer’s “One Chip Challenge.” An autopsy found Wolobah died after eating a large quantity of chile pepper extract and also had a congenital heart defect.

Harris died of cardiopulmonary arrest “in the setting of recent ingestion of food substance with high capsaicin concentration,” according to the autopsy from the Chief Office of the Medical Examiner. Capsaicin is the component that gives chile peppers their heat. The autopsy also said Harris had cardiomegaly, meaning an enlarged heart, and a congenital defect described as “myocardial bridging of the left anterior descending coronary artery.”

“Today we filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of this wonderful family for the loss of their beloved son, Harris,” said Douglas Sheff, one of the attorneys representing the family in the lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court. The lawsuit seeks a judgement determined by the court that would include punitive damages.

Sheff said the parties created “a perfect storm” that led to Wolobah's death that included Paqui producing the spicy chip and encouraging people to post videos of themselves eating the chip on social media while the lawsuit alleged Walgreens sold the “poisonous chip” to children.

“The defendants charged about $10 for each chip, $10 for the chip that killed Harris, $10 for his life,” Sheff said. “Isn’t it clear that these defendants knew full well that this chip was unreasonably dangerous? And isn’t this an obvious marketing campaign designed to attract kids to that very danger?”

Lois and Amos Wolobah, the parents of Harris, attended the news conference but did not speak. But at several points, Amos Wolobah appeared to become emotional and Lois seemed to blow a kiss to a photo that was shown of Harris.

The autopsy said Harris Wolobah had cardiomegaly, meaning an enlarged heart, and a congenital defect described as “myocardial bridging of the left anterior descending coronary artery.” But Sheff was adamant that had nothing to do with his death.

“The chip is what killed him,” he said.

Paqui, a Texas-based subsidiary of the Hershey Co., has expressed its sadness about Wolobah's death but also cited the chip’s “clear and prominent labeling highlighting that the product was not for children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or with underlying health conditions.”

The Paqui chip, sold individually for about $10, came wrapped in foil in a coffin-shaped box containing the warning that it was intended for the “vengeful pleasure of intense heat and pain.” The warning noted that the chip was for adult consumption only, and should be kept out of the reach of children. After seeing reports of teens and others not heeding those warnings, the company said it worked with retailers to “voluntarily remove the product from shelves in September 2023, and the One Chip Challenge has been discontinued.”

A spokesperson for Walgreens said it had no comment on the lawsuit while Hershey's did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite the warning, children had no problem buying the chips, and there had been reports from around the country of teens who got sick after taking part in the chip-eating challenge. Among them were three California high school students who were taken to a hospital and seven students in Minnesota who were treated by paramedics after taking part in the challenge in 2022.

The challenge called for participants to eat the Paqui chip and then see how long they could go without consuming other food and water. Sales of the chip seemed largely driven by people posting videos on social media of them or their friends taking the challenge. They showed people, including children, unwrapping the packaging, eating the chips and then reacting to the heat. Some videos showed people gagging, coughing and begging for water and the lawsuit cites scores of examples of people becoming sick after eating the chip.

Harris Wolobah's death spurred warnings from Massachusetts authorities and physicians, who cautioned that eating such spicy foods can have unintended consequences. Since the chip fad emerged, poison control centers have warned that the concentrated amount could cause allergic reactions, trouble breathing, irregular heartbeats and even heart attacks or strokes.

Sheff said that the lawsuit aims to provide justice to the Wolobah family and serve as a warning ”to all those who endanger our children.”

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