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Should I refuse to get in the car with a driver who has trouble drinking coffee?

For many drivers, drinking coffee on the morning commute is second nature. However, for Mr. Barron, it was a high-risk endeavour. In Barron v. Barron, 2003 NSSC 90, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court considered the liability issues where a driver chokes on his coffee. For reasons unknown, Mr. Barron had a tendency to lapse into coughing fits when he drank coffee.One morning he was driving his wife to work, drinking his coffee, and he had a particularly severe coughing episode. As a result, he drove into the ditch, and his wife was injured. Mr. Barron’s counsel argued that the accident was not foreseeable, and that he should not be held liable. Justice LeBlanc rejected this defence:

[42] Based on previous episodes where he had to pull his car over, the defendant knew, or ought to have known, that drinking coffee while driving could reasonably be expected to lead to violent coughing, lightheadedness and reduced control of his vehicle. The previous incidents of coughing made it foreseeable that drinking coffee while driving might impair his control over the vehicle. Thus, in continuing to drink coffee while driving, Mr. Barron failed in his duty not to expose others to the “risk or the possibility that he may suffer an attack … that would impair his ability to control his motor vehicle as he proceeds on the highway”: Telfer, supra. He failed to take reasonable care to prevent the accident.

Mr. Barron’s counsel also argued that Mrs. Barron was negligent for getting into the vehicle with her husband, knowing that he would be drinking coffee and driving. On this point, Justice LeBlanc he had to pull the vehicle over. Was it unreasonable for the plaintiff to be a “willing passenger” in the vehicle when the defendant planned to drink coffee while driving?

[58] … there is a strong argument that the plaintiff failed to take reasonable precautions to ensure her own safety. She knew of the potential risks of driving with the defendant while he drank coffee. Based on the four prior occasions where he choked so violently after drinking coffee that he had to pull over in order to regain control of the car, the plaintiff knew, or ought to have known, that accepting a ride from the defendant while he drank coffee exposed her to certain risks. Her conduct was thus negligent and contributed to her injuries.

While the judge concluded that Mr. Barron was primarily liable for the accident, Mrs. Barron was found to have contributed to her own injuries because she was a “willing passenger”, and her damages were reduced by 10%.

(written by Troy McLelan, coffee drinker)

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