In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered. This case became so famous that in 2011, it was the focus of an HBO documentary (Hot Coffee).
Now Ontario has its McDonald’s coffee case. The issue to be decided by the court in Dittman v. Aviva Insurance Co. of Canada, 2016 ONSC 6429, was whether spilling coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through constitutes an accident as per the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule (SABS).
In his decision, Gordon J. applied the “purpose and causation test” to find that the coffee incident fit within the definition of “accident.” This test asks whether the accident related from the ordinary and well-known activities to which automobiles are put. IT was not contested that attending a drive-through window was within the range of ordinary and well-known activities to which automobiles are put. What was at issue was whether the use of the vehicle was a cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Gordon J. found that it was an accident:
“I am content that but for the use of the vehicle the Plaintiff’s injuries would not have occurred. I come to this conclusion because but for her use of the vehicle she would not have been in the drive-through lane, would not have received the coffee while in a seated position, would not have been transferring the coffee cup holder across he body, and would not have had the coffee spill on her lap. In addition, but for her being seated and restrained by a lap and shoulder harness she may have been able to take evasive action avoid or less the amount of coffee that was spilled on her.”
This decision was recently affirmed by the Court of Appeal (2017 ONCA 617). In reaching this decision, the Court of Appeal emphasized that there was no intervening act. Rather, the accident was caused by a combination of using a running vehicle to access a drive-through window whilst restrained by a seatbelt. These facts brought the incident within the definition of accident contained in the SABS.
This decision provides a good example of how the purpose and causation test is to be applied. While on first glance spilled coffee might not seem like an accident, on careful inspection it falls directly into the normal and accepted uses of an automobile. This decision also provides another example of why drive through coffee should be handled with care, although I doubt HBO will make a documentary of this particular case.