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Does being injured from spilling coffee in a car entitle you to accident benefits?

According to the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule (SABS), in order to be entitled to statutory accident benefits, an injury has to arise from an "accident". Section 3(1) of SABS defines an “accident” as “an incident in which the use or operation of an automobile directly causes an impairment or directly causes damage to any prescription eyewear, denture, hearing aid, prosthesis or other medical or dental device”.

So, does spilling coffee in a car fall under “an incident in which the use or operation of an automobile directly causes an impairment”? The Ontario Court of Appeal has answered this question in Dittman v. Aviva.

In Dittman, the Plaintiff bought coffee from a McDonald’s drive-thru and spilled it on her thighs when attempting to transfer the coffee to the vehicle’s cup holder. It is important to note that the car remained in gear, although not in motion, and the Plaintiff was wearing her seatbelt, which limited any reflexive actions to avoid the spill. The analysis of the Court of Appeal focused on causation. Justice Gordon determined that the causation test required the consideration of two questions:

  1. Was the use or operation of the vehicle a cause of the injuries?

  1. If the use or operation of a vehicle was a cause of the injuries, was there an intervening act that resulted in the injuries that cannot be said to be part of the “ordinary course of things?” or in other words, was the use or operation of the vehicle a “direct cause” of the injuries?

Justice Gordon determined that but for the use of the vehicle, the Plaintiff’s injuries would not have occurred. Justice Gordon went on to note that if it was not for the use of the vehicle, the Plaintiff would not have been in the drive thru, would not have received or spilled coffee while sitting, and lastly, if the Plaintiff was not seated and restrained by the seatbelt, she would have been able to take evasive action to avoid or minimize the amount of coffee spilled on her thighs.

Justice Gordon then went on to determine if there was an intervening act that resulted in the injuries that cannot be said to be part of the “ordinary course of things”. Justice Gordon determined that the accidental spilling of a hot beverage is a normal incident of the risk created by the use of a vehicle at a drive-thru. Justice Gordon went on to exemplify that if the drive-thru attendant deliberately threw the coffee on the Plaintiff then that would be an intervening act and would effectively break the chain of causation.

Due to the analysis of Justice Gordon, the act of inadvertently spilling coffee was deemed to be an “accident” according to the SABS. Thus, the Plaintiff was entitled to receive accident benefits. The full decision of the Court of Appeal can be read here.
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