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 awards.
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 reasonable outcome.
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 minimal.