WARNING: This story contains graphic images of burned skin.
The family of an Ontario woman who says she was was scalded by a cup of hot Tim Hortons tea is suing the coffee-and-doughnut shop’s Canadian franchisor and the owner of one of its locations for $500,000 in damages.
But the defendants — TDL Group Corp. and Greenwood Enterprises Inc. — deny any allegations of negligence.
Jackie Lansing, 73, told CBC Toronto she was driving her sister to a medical appointment in May 2022 when they pulled in to the drive-thru at a Tim Hortons on Highway 60 in Huntsville, Ont.
Lansing ordered a medium black tea with two milks, which she said a worker passed to her through the window.
“I took it, put it in the cupholder and I said, ‘I don’t know, it seems really hot, it doesn’t seem like she’s put any milk in it,'” Lansing said in an interview.
“So I lifted it up to see if there was milk in it and the cup collapsed and [the tea] went on my stomach and my legs.”
Lansing, who lives just south of Rousseau, Ont., suffered “severe, painful and permanent injuries” from the spill, including second-degree burns on approximately six per cent of her body, according to a statement of claim filed on her behalf in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto in December.
“I was actually in shock because it was so painful,” Lansing said.
The lawsuit argues the restaurant was negligent by giving Lansing the tea at a “scalding temperature” in a defective cup that “collapsed in on itself.”
“The cup provided by the restaurant was faulty and deficient for its intended use,” the statement of claim reads. “The black tea provided was … a hazard rather than a beverage.”
Ten months after the injury, Lansing said the backs of her legs are scarred and she still has sores on her stomach.
“I just wish they would accept the responsibility,” she said.
The lawsuit identifies TDL Group as the company responsible for the supply of materials and upkeep of standards at the Huntsville Tim Hortons, as well as the leaseholder of the property on which the restaurant is located. TDL Group is an owned subsidiary of Tim Hortons’ U.S.-based parent company Restaurant Brands International, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Greenwood Enterprises operates the restaurant, according to the lawsuit.
Lansing is claiming $450,000 in damages for pain and suffering, medical costs and other expenses related to her injuries. Her husband and sister, also named as plaintiffs, are claiming $50,000 for the loss of guidance, care and companionship and for expenses incurred and lost income while caring for Lansing.
Gavin Tighe, a partner with the Toronto law firm Gardiner Roberts LLP who represents the family, said restaurants have a “duty of care” to ensure beverages are served at a temperature that’s safe for consumption.
“If it’s capable of scalding your body, it’s capable of scalding your mouth,” Tighe said in an interview.
“So why are restaurants serving it at that temperature?”
Tighe argued Tim Hortons hasn’t taken sufficient preventative action following similar scalding incidents, including one involving a Winnipeg woman in 2013.
Defendants deny all allegations
In a statement of defence filed in late February, a lawyer representing TDL and Greenwood denied that serving the hot tea created a hazard or that the condition of the cup contributed to the spill. Instead, they blamed Lansing for her injuries.
“If the plaintiffs sustained the injuries and damages alleged … such injuries and damages were caused and/or contributed to by the acts and/or omissions of [Lansing] herself,” Andrea LeDrew of the Toronto-based law firm Stieber Berlach LLP wrote.
“She was the author of her own misfortune.”
The statement of defence argues the defendants, their agents and staff “fulfilled all duties of care in regards to the sale and delivery of hot beverages” and that even if the spill was a result of the condition of the cup, it was not “in any way caused or contributed to by any breach of care or duty on the part of the defendants.”
LeDrew asked the court to dismiss the claim.
Tim Hortons declined to comment while the matter is before the courts.
According to the Tea Association of Canada’s website, tea should be prepared at temperatures ranging between 85 C for white and green tea to 100 C for black and herbal teas. The association also calls for those teas to steep for between one and six minutes, depending on the type.
But the U.S.-based Burn Foundation says water at 68 C is already hot enough to cause a third-degree burn in just one second.
Dr. Alan Rogers, a burn surgeon at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto who is not involved in the case, said the severity of a hot liquid burn depends on a number of factors, including the age of the patient as well as the temperature of the liquid, its viscosity and the duration of contact it has with the skin.
“If it’s on their clothing for a longer period of time, whether it’s been washed appropriately with … cool running water immediately, then it’s less likely to cause a burn injury,” he said.
Hot beverages central to several lawsuits
Rajiv Haté, a personal injury lawyer with Kotak Lawyers in Toronto who is also not involved in the case, said lawsuits against restaurants claiming damages for hot beverage burns are common.
The likelihood of success depends on whether Lansing can prove negligence on part of the restaurant or its staff, Haté said, or if the defence can successfully argue contributory negligence on her part.
“It’s really what caused it to occur and how did that end up impacting the plaintiff, but also, did the plaintiff do anything to contribute to that?” he said.
Haté said if the case goes to trial, experts are likely to be brought in to testify on issues like the proper standards for serving hot beverages and under what circumstances a cup like the one used could be faulty.
Lansing’s case is reminiscent of a high-profile U.S. case in the early 1990s that generated international attention.
In 1992, then-79-year old Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns when she accidentally spilled a cup of hot McDonald’s coffee in her lap and pelvic region. She sued the restaurant chain and a jury found McDonald’s carried the majority of liability for serving coffee that was too hot.
She was awarded nearly $2.9 million US in damages in 1994 — roughly $5 million US in present day money — although a judge later reduced the award to $640,000 US and the case was eventually settled out of court.