Alberta tourist injured after drinking cleaning fluid can sue Mexican resort, Supreme Court rules

An Edmonton woman who alleges she drank toxic cleaning fluid from a mini-bar while on vacation in Mexico can resume legal action in Alberta, after a decision from the country’s highest court.

'The injuries are extremely severe.... Her life has been horribly affected,' says lawyer

Kerry Toews alleges that she suffered catastrophic injuries after drinking cleaning fluid from an unlabelled bottle in her mini-bar at the Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa in Mexico. (Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa)

An Edmonton woman who alleges she suffered horrific, life-altering injuries after accidentally drinking toxic cleaning fluid during a Mexican vacation has been granted the right to resume legal action in Alberta.

Kerry Toews has been cleared to file a lawsuit in Alberta, after a jurisdictional battle brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court has dismissed an application by Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa and its Mexican parent company for leave to appeal a December 2016 Court of Appeal of Alberta ruling in the case.

8 years in limbo

The resort had argued that any legal challenge should occur in Mexico, not in Alberta, because the contract between Toews and the resort was made outside of Canada.

However, in a May 18 ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the Alberta courts had the right to rule on Toews's personal injury claim and breach of contract allegations.

The case has been in limbo for eight years, said Toews's lawyer Sara Hart, a partner with Dentons law firm Edmonton. 

"The Mexico hotel chain has challenged jurisdiction and the rights of our courts to hear the matter and that has taken many years because it's had to go through every level of court in our province," Hart said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Thursday.

"But that's the end of the chain for this hotel, and jurisdiction has now been formally grounded in Alberta."

Toews has been able to gain jurisdiction in Alberta for the case because her booking contract for food, drink and vacation accommodations was made in Alberta, said Hart.

'Catastrophic' injuries

Toews alleges that she suffered "catastrophic" injuries in February 2009 while staying at the Grand Palladium on a seven-night all-inclusive vacation with her husband and two daughters.

The family had spent a day at the beach, and upon returning their hotel room, Toews retrieved an "unmarked, unlabelled water bottle" from the fridge, according to a $4.35-million statement of claim filed in Court of Queen's Bench on Feb. 7, 2011.

Toews alleges that the bottle did not contain water, but "a caustic, clear, odourless, alkaline substance"  — what she now presumes was a chemical cleaning fluid.

"Immediately after ingesting the substance, Toews experienced extreme burning in her mouth and throat, creating a life-threatening medical emergency," reads the statement of claim.

She underwent emergency surgery in Mexico and was later airlifted from Puerto Vallarta to Edmonton.

The cleaning fluid burned her esophagus, which surgeons later removed. Eventually, she underwent more than 87 surgical procedures to treat her injuries. 

Toews alleges her injuries left her completely disabled and suffering from lethargy, extreme weight loss, fatigue, severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In her claim, the former payroll administrator accused the resort of being "grossly negligent" for failing to ensure her safety.  

'Always read the fine print'

"The injuries are extremely severe," Hart said. "She has undergone multiple surgeries and will have to undergo multiple surgeries for the rest of her life, so her life has been horribly affected."

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The lawsuit names as defendants First Choice Canada Inc., which operates Signature Vacations and, and the companies that own and operate the Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa.

Toews's case serves as a cautionary tale for international travellers, Hart said. In the event you are injured abroad, don't assume you can sue those responsible in your home jurisdiction, she said.

"Always read the fine print," she said. "I would encourage travellers that are going to foreign resorts to read the contracts they're signing, but more importantly, make sure you have good travel insurance."