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If I spill coffee in my lap, can I sue for millions of dollars?

Everyone knows the case: a woman spills McDonalds’ coffee in her lap, and she gets a multi-million dollar award. So can anyone who gets injured expect a huge payday? No, at least not in Canada. There are several reasons why we don’t see those kinds of awards here:


  1. The Canadian legal system has substantial controls on damage awards. “Pain and suffering” awards are effectively capped at about $325,000, and that is for permanent quadriplegia. A lifetime of chronic pain is usually valued at about $100,000. Burns from spilled coffee would be well below either amount. Indeed, the only Canadian coffee spill case known to the author awarded $8,000 for second degree burns that lasted for a year: Lamky v. 1517370 Ontario Inc., 2005 CanLII 6388 (Ont. S.C.J.) (As evidence that this was a true Canadian case, the plaintiff had spilled Tim Hortons’ coffee on her lap). There is also a recent story about a settlement for just over $12,000.
  2. It is more difficult to get punitive damage awards in Canada than in the United States — punitive damages formed a large part of the award in the McDonalds’ case.
  3. Juries are not nearly as generous in Canada as they are in the United States, and in fact, in BC jury awards sometimes have to be increased by appellate courts: Le v. Luz, 2003 BCCA 640 (Court of Appeal overruled jury award of $200 for general damages).

Another point to consider is that the media always reports the big jury award, but rarely follows up with the appeal. The McDonalds case was initially a $2,860,000 award, but after appeal it was reduced to $640,000 — still a lot, but less than a 1/4 of the original award. Finally, it is worth noting that one reason for the large punitive damages award in that case was that McDonalds refused to accept the plaintiff’s offer to settle for $20,000 (essentially reimbursing her for 8 days of hospital care, including skin grafts). You can read more about the McDonalds case here. If you’re really interested, consider watching the movie, Hot Coffee.

(written by Troy McLelan)

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