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Woman suing Tim Hortons for $500K after hot tea spill left her 'disfigured'

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Warning: This story contains graphic images that some readers may find disturbing.

An Ontario woman and her family have launched a civil lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages from Tim Hortons after she allegedly suffered second-degree burns across her stomach, genitals, and legs from a “superheated" tea.

“For what should’ve been an everyday occurrence, there have been very severe consequences,” Toronto lawyer with Gardiner Roberts LLP, Gavin Tighe, told CTV News Toronto Saturday.

Tighe is representing 73-year-old Jackie Lansing – who, on May 18, 2022, ordered a 14-ounce hot black tea using the drive-thru of a Huntsville, Ont. Tim Hortons, according to a statement of claim filed on behalf of Lansing and reviewed by CTV News Toronto.

It is alleged within the documents that Lansing was handed her tea at a “superheated, scalding” temperature in a “single cup” that “immediately collapsed in on itself.”

“As a result, approximately 14 ounces of scalding hot liquid spilled on Ms. Lansing’s stomach and legs,” her claim reads. “The tea provided was a hazard rather than a beverage.”

The spill resulted in severe, second-degree burns across much of her lower body, Tighe said. “To this day, heavy scarring is an issue,” he added.

The cup that held the 'scalding' tea served to Lansing. (Gardiner Roberts LLP)

In December, Lansing and her daughter launched a lawsuit against Tim Hortons, accusing the chain of negligence. Within her statement of claim, Lansing claims that the cup she was provided with was faulty, that the tea was heated to an unreasonable temperature, and that the employees failed to take reasonable care and warn her of the cup’s deficiencies.

Lansing's daughter is seeking damages under Ontario's Family Law Act, claiming she hasn't been able to sustain prior levels of care for her disabled child while also overseeing her mother's recovery.

A statement of defence filed in response on behalf of TDL Group Corp., the licensing company of Tim Hortons, and Greenwood Enterprises Inc., the operator of the franchise, denies any alleged negligence and argues that all duties of care were fulfilled and service standards were met. Instead, it blames Lansing and underlines an "assumed risk" when ordering a hot beverage.

"She was the author of her own misfortune," it reads.

When reached for comment, a representative for Tim Hortons told CTV News Toronto the company was unable to provide further information while the matter was in front of the courts.

'THE INCIDENT'

Following the spill, Lansing sought medical attention at Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, Tighe said.

“She immediately had to go to the emergency department and suffered serious burns to her torso and legs,” he said.

The burns did “extensive damage” to her stomach and legs, court documents allege, and resulted in “fluid-filled blistering of the skin, pus accumulation, and skin sloughing.”

Lansing's burns can be seen above. (Tighe)

In the months following the incident, Tighe said Lansing was at "serious risk of infection" and required frequent medical treatment and attention.

Documents allege that Lansing is “permanently and seriously injured, scarred, and disfigured,” and will continue to suffer pain for the remainder of her life.

Since the incident, her claim states she suffers from ongoing issues such as hypersensitive skin that requires daily SPF, low tolerance to temperature, chemicals, sunlight, and form-fitting clothes, ongoing weight gain, and a negative self-image.

“The injuries have left and will leave severely disfiguring and visible scars,” the claim reads.

She also alleges her mental health has declined and that she frequently is “afraid, anxious, gloomy, depressed, and tearful.”

WHAT IS A NEGLIGENCE CLAIM?

David Taub, partner at Robins Appleby LLP in Toronto, said that a successful negligence claim needs to establish five elements.

“The four basic elements are a duty of care, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages,” Taub told CTV News Toronto in an interview Sunday.

First, the plaintiff has to establish the defendant had some form of a legal duty of care – in this case, that Tim Hortons should have been expected to provide Lansing with tea of a reasonable temperature and a well-structured cup.

The plaintiffs will also be expected to show a breach of that duty, and that the breach caused harm.

“The cup, which held the superheated liquid ‘collapsed in on itself –’ I think is the language they use,” Taub said, referring to the alleged breach in Lansing’s claim. “So, [they’re alleging] either the tea was so hot that it busted the cup, or the cup itself was just wholly defective.”

When serving thousands of hot beverages a day, Tim Hortons can be reasonably expected to experience spills on occasion, Taub said. Within her case, Lansing will need to prove that the temperature of the tea was so hot that it exceeded a burn that could be “reasonably” expected in such settings.

“The plaintiff will need to prove more serious burns than one would expect to possibly suffer when purchasing a hot beverage,” Taub said. “You would likely need medical evidence.”

The fourth element, damages, is that the plaintiff must establish that the harm caused to them can be compensated in the form of damages, he said.

“You would expect, in any normal case, that your cup would be adequate to hold the contents inside, and so, if it all of a sudden it dumps out onto you, you'll have some sort of harm suffered from the hot drinking spilled on you,” Taub said.

According to her claim, Lansing is seeking damages to cover the costs of ongoing medical treatment, psychotherapy, dieticians, and future cosmetic treatment.

DEFENDENT DENIES ALLEGATIONS

A lawyer representing TDL and Greenwood denied that Tim Horton’s service of the tea created a hazard or that the cup was in any way faulty in a statement of defence filed in late February.

Instead, it blames Lansing for the incident, dubbing her the “author of her own misfortune.”

The defence argues that, at the time of the incident, Lansing was not paying attention, distracted by her cellphone, and, “despite her knowledge of the hot liquid,” moved hastily.

The statement of defence argues its parties "fulfilled all duties of care in regards to the sale and delivery of hot beverages.”

The defence is requesting the court dismiss Lansing’s claim.

‘NOT TERRIBLY COMMON’

Taub said he hasn’t seen many successful similar cases within his time in the field.

“It's not terribly common at all,” he said, “but it does happen.”

The litigator said these cases often draw a significant amount of public attention.

In the now-famous 1994 litigation case, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck alleged she suffered third-degree burns after spilling a McDonald's coffee in her lap while parked outside the restaurant. The legal proceedings made international news.

Earlier this year, a British Columbia man filed a lawsuit against McDonald's alleging he was injured by a "scalding hot" coffee while stopped at a drive-thru window. Just over a decade prior, a B.C. woman also sued the fastfood chain over burns sustained by a hot drink spill.

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