The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a commercial car garage did not owe a duty of care to a person who was injured following the theft of a vehicle from its premises.
In Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J., a teenager, J.J., who suffered a catastrophic brain injury, sued Rankin’s Garage & Sales, among other parties, for negligence because the car that he and another teenager stole from the car garage while inebriated had been left unlocked with the keys in the ashtray. At trial, multiple parties were found liable for J.J.’s injuries, which occurred after his friend C.C., who was driving the car, crashed it on the highway. The jury found that Rankin’s Garage, C.C., C.C.’s mother, who gave beer to the boys, and J.J. were all liable for the injury. Rankin’s Garage & Sales appealed the decision, and the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s finding that Rankin owed a duty of care to J.J., dismissing the appeal.
Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis disagreed with the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling. “Aside from evidence that could establish a risk of theft in general, there was nothing else to connect the risk of theft of the car to the risk of someone being physically injured. For example, Rankin’s Garage had been in operation for many years and no evidence was presented to suggest that there was ever a risk of theft by minors at any point in its history,” Karakatsanis wrote, with Chief Justice McLachlin (as she then was) and Justices Abella, Moldaver, Wagner, Côté and Rowe concurring.
In a dissenting judgment, Justice Brown, with Justice Gascon concurring, disagreed that the garage did not owe a duty of care to J.J., writing that “the lengths to which [Rankin’s Garage owner James Rankin] testified (albeit mendaciously) about the precautions he took to store the vehicles properly and to secure the keys for which he was responsible, provide ample support for the conclusion that a reasonable person in Rankin’s circumstances should have foreseen the risk of injury resulting from the negligent storage of vehicles. Indeed, while the majority sees Rankin’s testimony as revealing only that he foresaw the risk of theft, his evidence was clear he also foresaw the risk of injury” (emphasis in the original).
On the night that was J.J. was injured, he and his friend C.C., both then minors, were at the home of C.C.’s mother, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Some time after midnight, they left the house to walk around town, with the intention of stealing valuables from unlocked cars. Eventually, they made their way to Rankin’s Garage & Sales. The property was not secured, and the boys began walking around the lot checking for unlocked cars. C.C. found an unlocked car parked behind the garage with keys in the ashtray. C.C. then decided to steal the car and told J.J. to “get in,” which he did. C.C. drove the car out of the garage and on to the highway, where the car crashed.
In rejecting the appellate court’s finding that Rankin owed a duty of care to J.J., Karakatsanis wrote for the majority that “I do not accept that anyone that leaves a vehicle unlocked with the keys in it should always reasonably anticipate that someone could be injured if the vehicle were stolen. This would extend tort liability too far. Physical injury is only foreseeable when there is something in the facts to suggest that there is not only a risk of theft, but that the stolen vehicle might be operated in a dangerous manner.”
David Young of Benson Percival Brown LLP in Toronto, who represented James Rankin, told Legal Feeds, “The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that a motor vehicle is not like a loaded gun. It is not an inherently dangerous object. What this means is that, for a commercial garage merely having care and control of multiple vehicles, that does not necessarily create a risk of personal injury.
“The risk needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” Benson says of the Supreme Court’s decision. “We are appreciative of having received guidance from the high court on this important issue. The decision reaffirms a long-standing principle that a duty of care requires the risk of harm be reasonably foreseeable and not a mere possibility.”
Maia Bent of Lerners LLP in London, Ont., who represented J.J. by his Litigation Guardian, told Legal Feeds, “We are disappointed with the judgment. Our expectation was the courts would reason more in line with the dissent, which we felt was quite compelling.
“This isn’t a novel duty of care,” she says. “There is a well-established duty of care, and that is that the defendant’s act foreseeably causes harm.”
“The moral of the story is that you live and die by your trial record. There was additional evidence of exactly the type that the court said was lacking, but it was excluded by the trial judge. So, we had evidence that all the high school kids in this town knew that you could get an unsecured vehicle at Rankin’s and go joyriding in it, but we were unable to find firsthand evidence and the trial judge said that what she characterized as rumours were insufficient.”