Hot Coffee Spills and Other Motor Vehicle Mishaps: What are Your Options?

by Ryan Alkenbrack

Tim Horton’s recent coffee cup lid redesign has resulted in people finding their take-out coffee lids unexpectedly coming off their cups and causing spills. A number of people have called us in the past 12 months with reports of significant burns caused by the lids popping off. In many cases, the victims are in their cars when the lids come off causing serious burns and injuries.

Several websites have reported on coffee spill issues, including which has a petition signed by over 1,800 people asking Tim Horton’s to bring back their old lids because the new lids spill more often. CBC and The Globe and Mail have both released articles in the past 16 months reporting on issues of Tim Horton’s coffee being too hot and of complaints of the lids leaking or spilling on customers.

The history of coffee spills and auto-insurance

Hot beverage spills are a subject widely misunderstood by the public due to the infamous U.S case of Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants.

Major insurance companies and corporations have disseminated misinformation about this topic in the years subsequent to the McDonald’s hot coffee burn case. As Kris Bonn reviewed in his previous blog on the subject, the documentary “Hot Coffee” analyzes and discusses the above case where coffee was served by McDonald’s at extreme temperatures causing Ms. Liebeck horrific burns when her cup spilled on her lap in her vehicle.

Similarly, in Ontario, in 2014 there was a “hot coffee” case wherein Erin Dittman ordered a coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through and was handling the cup when the lid came off, spilling hot coffee over her legs resulting in severe burns. Ms. Dittman applied for accident benefits from her motor vehicle insurer Aviva Canada.

Access to accident benefits in Ontario: The Dittman case

Being burned by a hot beverage can result in significant injuries and victims who suffer these burns while in or around their motor vehicle may be able to access accident benefits for treatment through their own motor vehicle insurer.

Accident benefits are “no-fault” benefits available to individuals who are injured in an “accident” while using or operating a motor vehicle. The benefits are potentially payable by an injured person’s motor vehicle insurer, no matter who is at fault for the injury.

The issue in the Dittman case was whether the injuries she suffered from the hot coffee could be defined as an “accident” under the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule. The Dittman case was heard at the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2017 and the court found that even though the vehicle was not moving at the time of the incident, Ms. Dittman would not have been using the drive-through and her injuries would not have occurred if she had not been using/operating her vehicle. The court concluded that the incident met the definition of “accident” in the legislation and Ms. Dittman was entitled to accident benefits through her motor vehicle insurer.

Supreme Court upholds that burns resulting from a spilled takeout cup will be included in no-fault accident benefits.

As an update since Kris’ previous blog, Aviva applied to the Supreme Court of Canada to appeal the decision and in March of 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the application. Thus, the law in Ontario is that if you suffer a burn from hot coffee or hot tea from a takeout cup that you purchased going through the drive-thru, you will be eligible for no-fault accident benefits.

Although it may not seem obvious to apply to your automobile insurer if you are burned by a hot beverage in your car, there are other examples of unusual incidents where the courts and tribunals have found that the injured person was in an “accident” involving the use or operation of a motor vehicle, showing that coverage can be quite broad.

In each of these specific cases, the injured person was able to claim benefits from their automobile insurer:

-·Economical Mutual Insurance Co. v. Caughy – A individual was seriously injured when he tripped over a motorcycle that was parked on a path in the dark. 

-·Olsen v. Royal & SunAlliance Insurance Co. of Canada – The insured was injured while sitting in a vehicle and was struck by flying debris at a scrap metal dealership.

- Charbonneau v Intact Insurance Co. -- The insured was standing on a rear bumper of a car in motion when the driver made a sharp turn and he fell and hit his head on the concrete.

- GR v. Economical Mutual Insurance Company - The applicant was clearing snow off his parked vehicle and fell, sustaining injuries.

No-fault accident coverage can be quite broad and should be explored as an option if you are injured and a vehicle is in some way involved.

If you are injured and a motor vehicle was involved in some way, even if you were not driving or a passenger at the time of the incident, you may be able to claim benefits from your motor vehicle insurer. If in doubt, you should apply to your insurer for accident benefits and consult with a lawyer, you may have coverage and you want to ensure your rights are protected.

I have been practicing personal injury law at Bonn Law for the past two years, representing victims who have been injured in motor-vehicle related incidents. If you, or someone you know, have any questions related to auto insurance or personal injury generally, Bonn Law is here to help you understand your legal rights.