It has been 20 years since Liebeck v McDonald's
Restaurants, wherein a U.S. court in the state of New Mexico
awarded the plaintiff $2.9 million after she accidently spilled hot
coffee which she had just purchased from the fast food giant onto
her lap. You may be more familiar with the case's other names,
"The Hot Coffee Lawsuit" or "The McDonald's
Coffee Case." For many this case was simply a classic example
of a frivolous lawsuit, and was a shining example of the need for
tort reform, especially in the U.S. with its spiralling damage
After learning about the Liebeck case 20 years ago I
can remember thinking to myself at the time (with all my youthful
ignorance) that perhaps I will visit McDonald's and have my own
hot coffee "accident." "That would never happen in
Canada," I was told by someone older and much wiser. It was
easy to simply pass Liebeck off as just another lawsuit in
the highly litigious U.S. society. But are we immune to such
frivolous lawsuits here in Canada?
I was reminded of Liebeck upon learning about
Canada's own version of the The Hot Coffee Lawsuit, involving a
very Canadian company, Tim Hortons: Laflamme c.
Groupe TDL ltée, 2014 QCCS 312. Ms. Laflamme was
seeking just over $2 million in damages for being served
excessively hot potato soup which burned her mouth and lead to
other physical, mental, and emotional problems. In the end the
plaintiff was awarded nearly $70,000 with interest and additional
indemnity. (This sum is far less than the $2.9 million awarded in
Liebeck, however it should be noted that the trial judge
reduced the final amount to $640,000, and the parties settled for
an undisclosed final amount before an appeal was decided).
Having read the judgment I would argue that Laflamme
was not a frivolous lawsuit. To some $70,000 may seem like a lot of
money for burning one's mouth with some hot potato soup. One
may be asking, "Where is the personal responsibility? Why
didn't Ms. Laflamme make sure the soup wasn't too hot
before putting it in her mouth? Did she blow on the soup first to
cool it down?" The answer is no, she did not test the
soup's temperature before putting it in her mouth, nor did she
blow on it to cool it down. In fact the Defendants argued that Ms.
Laflamme was the "author of her own misfortune" (at para.
167), but the Court did take that into consideration and
apportioned fault 1/3rd to the Plaintiff (apportionment being an
art, not as science). Furthermore the Court was very thorough in
its review of all the relevant factors: the governing law in
Québec regarding liability, the restaurant's food
preparation methods, expert evidence from burn specialists and food
chemists, Ms. Laflamme's employment history and personal
relationships, the extent of the damages, and the "thin skull
doctrine." For being somewhat skeptical before reading the
judgement, by the end I was completely convinced that it was a
It has been my experience that legal practitioners in Canada are
careful not to bring frivolous or vexatious lawsuits. The trilogy
of cases (Andrews v. Grand & Toy Alberta Ltd., 
2 SCR 229, Arnold v. Teno,  2 SCR 287, Thornton
v. School Dist. No. 57 (Prince George),  2 SCR 267) has
limited non-pecuniary damages and has certainly helped in this
regard. For these reasons, and if the Court in Laflamme is
indicative of courts across the country, it is the writer's
opinion that the risk of frivolous lawsuits in Canada is
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