Hot Coffee Insurance Claims and Ontario’s SABS

Edited by Admin
Hot Coffee Insurance Claims and Ontario’s SABS

Hot Coffee Insurance Claims

In the 1990s there was an infamous lawsuit involving an elderly woman who sued McDonald’s for millions of dollars because her coffee from an Albuquerque drive-through window was too hot. Comedians had a field day with the story, and there was even a storyline on Seinfeld that mocked the case. “Coffee is supposed to be hot!” was a common reaction, or “She spilled it on herself, why is it the company’s fault?” Some people felt she shouldn’t have been drinking coffee while driving. However, there was more to this case than met the eye.


In fact, Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled. She’d picked it up from the drive-through window, and had parked in the restaurant’s parking lot to drink it. She was intending to add cream and sugar to the coffee, and had placed the cup between her knees while removing the lid. The cup tipped over and spilled the coffee on her lap and legs. Normally, this would create an inconvenience for the coffee drinker, or at most, an uncomfortable experience. However, McDonald’s coffee was not just “hot,” it was heated to a dangerous temperature (180 - 190°F). The woman sustained serious third-degree burns, and required skin grafts on her inner thighs.


In addition, during the decade previous to this incident, McDonald’s had received more than seven hundred reports of injury due to the scalding temperature of its coffee, including other customers who had suffered third-degree burns. The company had even paid out settlements for some of these cases, yet did not alter the way it served coffee.


The case unfolded in an unexpected way. Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case with the company for an amount that would cover her medical expenses, $20,000. McDonald’s offered her only $800, so the case proceeded to jury trial. The jury heard evidence from company that included information about other injured customers, that the company knew the coffee was served hot enough to cause burns in a matter of seconds, and that they had never considered warning customers about this. Mrs. Liebeck was awareded punitive damages of $3 million –an amount equal to two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. One jury member told the press that the company had shown “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” The award was reduced by the judge, and the parties eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.


McDonald’s Coffee Spill and SABS

In Ontario, there’s a similar case on the books, Dittman v Aviva Insurance Company of Canada.  Like the American case, this one involves hot McDonald’s coffee and a drive-through. The twist is that, in this instance, the plaintiff claimed that she could be compensated for her burns through the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule, Ontario’s no-fault motor vehicle insurance coverage. Early in the morning of July 7, 2014, Erin Dittman ordered a coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through speaker, then pulled up beside the drive-through window where she paid for, and was handed ,her coffee. She picked the coffee up by the top of the cup and attempted to move it across her body to her car’s cupholder. However, in the process of doing so, the lid came off the cup and scalding hot coffee splashed onto Ms. Dittman’s thighs, causing serious burns. Although the vehicle was running during the incident, it wasn’t moving, and there was no collision or vehicular motion that contributed to the mishap. However, the seatbelt that Ms. Dittman was wearing prevented her from moving out of the way of the hot liquid as it spilled.


At the time, Ms. Dittman’s car was insured with Aviva Insurance Company of Canada. She argued successfully in the Ontario Superior Court that the burns were an “accident” for the purpose of first-party accident benefits through SABS. The relevant section of the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule is Section 3.1, which defines “accident” as “an incident in which the use or operation of an automobile directly causes an impairment or directly causes damage to any prescription eyewear, denture, hearing aid, prosthesis or other medical or dental device.” Because the plaintiff could not have even accessed the drive-through without being in the car, and because buying coffee at a drive-through is considered to be an ordinary use for a vehicle, the SABS provisions were ruled to apply to this case. The court’s ruling was upheld in the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2017, and the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an application from Aviva for leave to appeal.


Personal Injury Law Firms

If you or a family member has been injured in an incident that involves an automobile, you too may be eligible to collect damages through the SABS. A personal injury lawyer can help you to assess your situation, and advise you about how to proceed.


Contact a personal injury law firm today and book a free initial consultation!