Sunday, February 26, 2012

Roll up the Rim to Legal Disputes

A bit of a fun topic for today.

Many of us remember a widely-publicized dispute from 2006 regarding a winning "Roll up the Rim to Win" cup, winning an SUV valued around $30,000.  A 10-year-old in a Quebec school found a discarded cup, but couldn't roll up the rim herself so enlisted the help of a 12-year-old friend to do so.  It was a big winner.  The parents then got into a fight about who would claim the prize, and following the media attention the school janitor wandered into the dispute claiming the cup was his and that a DNA test was appropriate to prove that he was, in fact, the true owner of the winning cup.

The contest rules don't really spell out who the winner would be, but Tim Hortons ultimately took the position that the family of the 10-year-old girl should receive the vehicle.

Quebec has a different legal system from the other Provinces, but I'm fairly certain the conclusion would have been correct in common law jurisdictions.  "Finders keepers" isn't usually the law - for instance, if you find someone's purse left by mistake on a park bench, that doesn't make the contents yours; there still exists a "true owner", who has a claim to the property superior to yours.  However, where an object can be said to have been 'abandoned' - that is, where a person has taken some action with the intention of abandoning the item - there is no longer a "true owner"; the object falls into what we call the "Lockean commons", open to be claimed by whomever stumbles upon it.

So the key question in this context, in a common law jurisdiction, would be whether or not the janitor can be said to have truly abandoned the cup, and the answer to that, given the limited ostensible value of the discarded coffee cup, is likely yes.  Meaning that he's given up any claim to it.

The dispute between the girl who found it and the girl who rolled it up is likely more straightforward.  In the absence of some clear language in the contest rules which would make the roller the winner, it doesn't seem that there's any basis for the older girl to make a claim.  It's akin to me asking you to double-check the numbers on my winning lottery ticket, and you saying that the request amounted to a gift of the ticket.

This schoolyard dispute seems pretty far out in left field, but one can easily imagine other disputes.

Who Owns the Winning Tab?

Coffee is cheap.  People buy for each other all the time, so it is easy to imagine a scenario in which one person buys a winning coffee cup for another individual.  Last year, the Star ran a story contemplating such a scenario, noting that Tim Hortons essentially stays out of the issue and doesn't assist with 'safe group play' like OLG does.

In a one-off coffee purchase for another person, there's a compelling moral argument to be made that the purchaser should be able to lay claim to the prize.  After all, I paid for it.  On the other hand, if I hadn't paid for it, it's just as likely that you would have gone and bought it yourself.  So there's still a compelling causation argument to suggest that the person whose coffee it is should win.  And what happens if there's a rotation?  I buy the office coffees today; you buy tomorrow, and so on.  One can easily support a proposition that would suggest either way, that the inherent quid pro quo makes my coffee cup mine every day, or alternatively that all the day's coffee cups belong to the purchaser.

And nobody really thinks too much about it until there is a big winner.  If there's a small winner (coffee or doughnut), it's probably pretty common to assume that the person who drank the first coffee gets the second one.  Because, again, coffee is cheap, so who cares.  I'd probably rather pay for my own new coffee than have to handle the rim of the cup that you drank.

Maybe we can agree that the drinker gets to keep the small prizes, and that the buyer gets to keep or share in the big prizes?  Sure, one can reach a nice simple agreement along these lines easily enough...until you ponder that a small prize (i.e. a coffee) can go on to win a bigger prize.  So I buy you a coffee, you win a coffee, and that winning coffee gets you the car.  Do I have a claim?

It seems far easier and simpler to me to maintain a bright-line rule:  Whomever drinks the coffee keeps the rim.  If I'm being bought a coffee by anyone other than my significant other, I'll half-jokingly make that clear:  The Rim is mine.  If the buyer has a problem with that, they don't have to buy for me.  No problem, I'll pay for my own.  And that's what's so compelling about the bright-line rule; buying a coffee for someone is more often an act of convenience and good will than an act of any significant charity.

Maybe, as a lawyer, I'm overthinking this.   But to some extent, that's just what I do - consider the contingencies that don't necessarily occur to people in advance, and try to find proactive approaches to resolve disputes before they occur.  In many senses, that is the purpose of a contract, making clear the expectations of all parties in advance, so that you won't end up down the road with an argument arising from a scenario that nobody had really thought about beforehand.

This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.


  1. Today I bought 4 "roll up the rim coffee" for co-workers and thus began the debate. First of all ground rules must be established prior to the consumption of the coffee. After much personal conclusion was as follows:
    If we win a car get sold. 60% of the money from the sale of the car goes to the person who purchased the coffee.....the remaining 40% of the money is split among the remaining 3 people.
    My personal opinion for justifying the 60% is the fact that without my purchase one would have had anything......and I felt it only fair to include all 4 people who had coffee purchased for them due to the fact that all had equal opportunity to win a prize.

    Some views were as follows:
    1) Once I buy and give you a becomes yours and I lose all interest in a gift.
    2) Money will be split 50/50 between winner and matter how many coffee purchased.
    3) Winning rim belongs to the purchaser.

    Made for a somewhat interesting debate this's all fine until it rules need to be established prior to consumption because......

    "It's all good :)....till it's bad:(......then it's not good anymore"

    1. (1) and (3) are both positions that could have some merit to them. All the halfway positions, while reasonable for people to agree upon, are essentially compromise solutions between these principled extremes.

      Also, the discussions are often "If we win a car", because that's the big prize, and - again - nobody really cares much about a free coffee or doughnut. But what about the other significant prizes? I have a friend who won a camera. (Posted a photo on facebook of the winning tab. My first instinct, not knowing what car was up for grabs this time around, was "Shouldn't that end with an 'o'?")

      I'd suggest, however, that the ground rules ought to be set before purchase, not just before consumption. If I'm not going to get to keep my rim just because you bought today, I'll pay for my own coffee, thank you very much. (Wouldn't it be unpleasant if you and your co-workers were unable to agree on terms and you ended up having to drink all four coffees yourself?)