Tribunal finds that spilling tea while stopped at a red light is not an automobile accident

The use or operation of the vehicle should be the direct cause of the injuries

Tribunal finds that spilling tea while stopped at a red light is not an automobile accident

To launch a successful claim for benefits under the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule, one should show that the use or operation of the motor vehicle directly caused the injuries.

In M.P. vs. Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, 2020 ONLAT 18-012641/AABS, the applicant sought benefits arising from an alleged automobile accident. The case concerns the preliminary issue of what constitutes an accident as defined under s. 3(1) of the Schedule.

According to the applicant’s narration of the facts under oath, she purchased hot tea via the drive-through of a fast food restaurant. She had driven off and had stopped at a red light when she noticed that the lid of the cup had not been securely placed. She lifted the cup from the tray that she had placed on the passenger’s seat, held the cup in front of her with her left hand and attempted to secure the lid with her right hand before transferring the cup to the cupholder. At this point, the tea spilled and injured her.

The respondent insurer argued that it was not the use of the vehicle that had caused the applicant’s injuries. Instead, there were intervening acts — namely, the fast food employee’s negligence in improperly securing the lid and the applicant’s own attempt to secure the lid — which had caused the applicant’s injuries.

The applicant countered that having a beverage and using the cupholder should be considered acts in the ordinary course of using one’s vehicle. She also compared the factual circumstances of her case to the facts in Dittmann v Aviva Insurance Company of Canada, 2016 ONSC 6429, in which the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in the plaintiff’s favour.

In Dittmann, the plaintiff had also bought a hot drink via a drive-through. As she was transferring the drink from the drive-through window to the cupholder, the coffee spilled on her lap and injured her. The court said that the incident could be considered an accident under the Statutory Accident Benefits Schedule because the plaintiff’s injuries were acts in the ordinary course of using her vehicle. But for the use of her vehicle, she would not have been present at the drive-through, and but for the use of her seatbelt, she would have been able to avoid the injury.

The Ontario Licence Appeal Tribunal disagreed with this comparison. In Dittmann, there were no mentions of an improperly secured lid or allegations of negligence on the part of a restaurant employee. There were no intervening acts in Dittmann, while there are intervening acts in this case.

The tribunal agreed with the respondent’s submission that the sole cause of the injuries were the act of the drive-through employee in improperly placing the lid and the act of the applicant in trying to secure the lid. These intervening acts broke the link of causation.

“Nothing about the vehicle caused her to spill the tea,” wrote Thérèse Reilly, adjudicator for the tribunal. “The fact that she was in a vehicle was simply incidental.”

Under the purpose test, the accident should result from the ordinary and well-known activities of the vehicle, while under the direct causation test, the use or operation of the vehicle should be the direct cause of the injuries. Moreover, there should be an unbroken chain of causation that links the applicant’s conduct as a motorist to their injuries. An intervening act will free the insurer from liability if the act is not a normal incident of the risk arising from the use or operation of the vehicle.

For these reasons, the tribunal, in its decision of the preliminary issue, said that the applicant’s injuries were not caused by an accident as defined under s. 3(1) of the Schedule.

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