Woman Sues Tim Hortons, Alleges Debilitating Dairy Reaction to Tea

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News, Milk & Egg
Published: November 20, 2023
Photo: Getty

A Canadian woman is suing Tim Hortons after an error in an online order allegedly caused a life-threatening allergic reaction and lasting injuries. The case is also raising questions about the safety of online ordering for people with serious food allergies.

The statement of claim for Gabrielle Lien Ho, 25, says the Winnipeg woman ordered a tea using the Tim Hortons app. Because of her dairy allergy, she used a dropdown menu to specify that she wanted it with almond milk. However, Tim Hortons allegedly put cream in her tea instead.

Her complaint says this led to a reaction so severe that she became non-responsive and hospital staff had to restart her heart. Ho says that she has endured serious, continuing health problems related to oxygen deprivation during the reaction.

She is suing Restaurant Brands International, which owns the Tim Hortons chain, three related companies, and the operator of the Tim Hortons franchise that made the tea. In her statement, Ho says she is unable to work, now lives with her mother, and has lost her independence.

None of the claims have been proven in court, and none of the companies involved have filed a statement of defense. Tim Hortons has not replied to interview requests from Allergic Living. But in an email to the Canadian Press, the company said it cannot comment on the case because it is before the courts.

Lawsuit: App User’s Heart Stopped

On June 9, Ho was working in a children’s clothing store at a Winnipeg mall when she made the online order. The lawsuit says she picked up the tea and returned to the store. But after sipping the tea, she began experiencing allergic symptoms.

The young woman reportedly called her mother, who helped to administer her EpiPen. A coworker then drove her to a nearby hospital, but Ho began losing consciousness before she arrived.

“The Plaintiff’s coworker located a wheelchair and rushed the Plaintiff into Concordia Hospital. At that time, the Plaintiff was non-responsive and in a state of pulseless electrical activity, meaning her heart had stopped beating,” reads the statement of claim. It says hospital staff “performed CPR for approximately eight minutes until the Plaintiff’s heart spontaneously re-started.”

The statement of claim says that after Ho was revived, she was transferred to an intensive care unit at the largest provincial hospital. A few days after leaving the unit, she experienced a severe headache, vision loss, a skin prickling sensation, and partial paralysis on her left side.

“An MRI was consistent with delayed post-hypoxic leukoencephalopathy – a condition that can arise after the brain has suffered a period of lack of oxygen,” reads the statement. Ho also began experiencing muscle spasms and jerky movements, it says.

She spent four weeks at a brain injury rehabilitation center. The lawsuit says that although Ho’s condition “improved somewhat,” at the time of her release, she still suffered weakness in her left arm, impaired use of her left hand, balance issues and fatigue.

“The plaintiff continues to work on recovering,” reads the statement. “It remains unknown if the plaintiff will make a full recovery.”

Online Orders and Food Allergies

Ho is seeking damages for pain and suffering, mental distress, income loss, future costs of care and other expenses. The statement also seeks a trust claim on behalf of her mother. It says she has been off work to care for her daughter.

While the Tim Hortons chain isn’t commenting on the tea case, it told Canadian Press that it takes food allergies seriously. “While we communicate with guests that Tim Hortons restaurants are not a 100-per-cent allergen-free environment, we do take preventative measures to reduce the risk for guests with allergies,” said the company.

An allergen information chart on the Tim Hortons website says that while the company takes precautions for allergies, “we cannot guarantee that cross-contact of allergens will not occur.” It further states: “We do not assume responsibility for a person’s sensitivity or allergy to any food item provided in our restaurants.”

Online ordering has become ubiquitous across the restaurant industry. Now Ho’s case is raising questions about how safe online ordering is for people with food allergies.

Tim Hortons Tea & ‘Duty of Care’

The lawsuit claims that Tim Hortons breached its “duty of care” by failing to provide a place in the app where customers could indicate they have an allergy. It also says the company failed to warn app users of the risk of allergen exposures in a beverage. 

Ho’s statement also alleges that Tim Hortons failed to implement procedures to ensure its employees were trained to make sure that any substitutions and non-dairy requests were prepared properly.

In an email, Winnipeg lawyer Jason Harvey, who is representing Ho, said restaurants need to be more careful when it comes to allergies and online ordering.

“It is now commonplace that companies utilize online apps to sell their products. It is also common that members of the community suffer from allergies,” he said.

“Where an online application sells a product meant to be ingested, it should be expected that it provides an opportunity for consumers to advise of any allergy concerns to ensure the safety of all consumers,” said Harvey. “Otherwise, there is a risk of the type of significant reaction and injuries that occurred in this case.”

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