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

BOSTON — A lawsuit was filed Thursday in the case of a Massachusetts teen who died after he participated in a spicy tortilla chip challenge 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.”

Paqui, a Texas-based subsidiary of the Hershey Co., 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.

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.

Harris’ 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.

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