A day after celebrating her oldest son’s high school graduation, Krystal Talavera was preparing breakfast for her partner when she collapsed onto the floor of their home in Palm Beach County, Florida.
It was Father’s Day morning on June 20, 2021, when Biagio Vultaggio, the father of her youngest child, awoke to find her face down, unconscious, in the living room, a federal lawsuit says.
Next to Talavera were their 14-month-old, who was playing, a hot cup of coffee and an open bag of “Space Dust” — a product derived from kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, a natural plant with origins in Southeast Asia that is commonly sold as a supplement in U.S. stores, according to the lawsuit and her family’s attorneys.
After Vultaggio called paramedics, they took Talavera to Bethesda Hospital East in Boynton Beach, where she was pronounced dead at age 39, an amended complaint filed in federal court says.
Talavera, who worked as a registered nurse at Trustbridge Hospice Care in West Palm Beach and had recently been promoted to manager, is survived by her four children.
Following an autopsy, her official cause of death was listed as “acute mitragynine intoxication” by the Palm Beach County Coroner, the complaint says. Mitragynine is one of the main psychoactive components of the kratom plant and one of its many alkaloids.
“At high concentrations, mitragynine produces opioid-like effects, such as respiratory failure,” the coroner wrote, according to the complaint.
Talavera’s son Devin Filippelli — who was getting ready to attend the University of Florida when she died — sued kratom distributor Grow LLC, which does business as The Kratom Distro, over her death in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida in November. Talavera often purchased the company’s kratom products, the complaint says.
Now, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks has ruled in Filippelli’s favor and ordered Grow LLC to pay more than $11 million in damages to Talavera’s family, attorneys at mctlaw in Sarasota, who represented the case, announced in a July 27 news release.
“There is of course no amount of money that will make up for the pain and suffering that Ms. Talavera’s children are enduring because of their mother’s death,” Middlebrooks wrote in an order issued on July 26. “The law nonetheless recognizes that the defendant must pay something, however inadequate.”
The final judgment was entered on July 27, awarding $11,642,895 in damages.
McClatchy News contacted Grow LLC, which is owned by Sean Harder, who was also named as a defendant in the case, for comment on July 28 and didn’t receive an immediate response.
Filippelli, now 21, told McClatchy News in a statement that he hopes the judge’s ruling will garner attention and bring awareness to “the dangers of kratom.”
“I am grateful for the judge’s decision, but no amount of money will bring my mom back or numb my pain,” Filippelli said.
What to know about kratom
Kratom is sold in U.S. stores and online, according to the Food and Drug Administration. About 1.7 million Americans 12 and older were reported to be kratom users in 2021.
In Talavera’s case, her friends introduced her to kratom years before her death, according to the lawsuit.
She purchased products from The Kratom Distro online and believed it was “a safe and natural dietary supplement” as it was marketed, the complaint says.
However, the FDA says kratom isn’t “appropriate for use as a dietary conventional supplement.” Additionally, the plant isn’t approved as a prescription or over-the-counter drug.
Why do people take kratom?
Kratom can be consumed by chewing the leaves, ingesting the leaves in powdered form, drinking a beverage infused with the plant and more, the World Health Organization says.
In smaller doses, kratom can produce stimulant effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If taken in higher doses, it can produce effects similar to opioids.
It’s been used for centuries in Southeast Asia, where it is commonly accepted — similar to drinking coffee in the U.S., Dr. Christopher McCurdy, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida and an internationally recognized kratom expert, previously told McClatchy News.
According to the FDA, people use kratom for a variety of reasons, including to self-treat pain, anxiety, depression, opioid use and opioid withdrawal.
Though the FDA warns against consuming kratom over potential safety concerns and addiction risks, the agency supports further research to “better understand the substance and its components.”
The judge’s decision
At trial, Filippelli described Talavera as “the nucleus of the family” as “she was the person that brought everyone together,” Middlebrooks wrote in his July 26 order.
He awarded the more than $11 million in damages to Talavera’s family on three counts specified in the complaint, the final judgment shows.
This includes, according to the complaint, how Grow LLC sold its kratom products “without any warning regarding instructions for use,” how the product was “more dangerous than the ordinary consumer would reasonably expect” and how the distributor was negligent in selling its products.
“This $11-million-dollar judgment should be a wakeup call to the kratom industry about this dangerous and unregulated substance,” attorney Tamara Williams, of mctlaw, said in a statement.
The outcome of the case comes days after a Washington state jury awarded a family $2.5 million in connection with another kratom wrongful death lawsuit, McClatchy News reported. Attorneys at mctlaw also represented that case.
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