In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) has ruled that a car service garage did not owe a duty of care to a teenager who was seriously injured after stealing a vehicle from its premises. A business will only be held responsible where it should have known that both the car could be stolen, and that someone could be injured due to it being driven unsafely.
In the case of Rankin’s Garage & Sales v. JJ by His Litigation Guardian, the SCC overturned earlier rulings which placed some responsibility on Rankin’s Garage for the tragic accident. The only issue before the SCC was whether Rankin’s Garage owed JJ a duty of care.
On July 8, 2006, JJ and his friends (all between the ages of 15 and 16 years old) were hanging out at a dam in Paisley, Ontario. The group of friends proceeded to JJ’s friend CC’s home to drink beer bought by CC’s mother. The friends continued to drink vodka and orange juice and smoked marijuana after CC’s mother went to bed.
Later that night, JJ and CC decided to go to Rankin’s Garage. They found an unlocked Toyota Camry with the keys in the ashtray and decided to take it for a joyride. CC drove the vehicle, although he did not have a driver’s licence and it was his first time driving a car. JJ sat in the passenger seat. While driving on the highway towards Walkerton, CC crashed the car causing JJ to suffer a catastrophic brain injury.
CC was charged with several offences, including theft and driving with over 0.08% blood alcohol concentration.
Through his litigation guardian, JJ sued Rankin’s Garage (as well as CC and CC’s mother) and claimed that Rankin’s Garage owed a duty of care to JJ to secure the vehicles at his garage. The trial was held on September 25, 2014 before a jury.
The jury heard evidence from several witnesses that advised they had brought their cars to Rankin’s Garage to be serviced and were instructed by Mr. Rankin to leave the keys in unsecured places (i.e. under mats or in the car). Mr. Rankin testified that he asked customers to leave their keys in a locked drop box and that he made sure that the cars were locked every single night after closing.
The jury found that Rankin’s Garage owed a duty of care to JJ and apportioned 37% of the liability on the business. The jury also apportioned liability at 30% for CC’s mother, 23% for CC and 10% for JJ. The Ontario Court of Appeal (“ONCA”) upheld the trial decision.
DOES AN OWNER OF A CAR SERVICE GARAGE OWE A DUTY OF CARE TO THIEVES WHO DRIVE THE GARAGE’S SERVICED CARS?
The SCC found that Rankin’s Garage did not owe a duty of care to JJ in these circumstances. The SCC overruled the ONCA decision that found that a novel duty of care should be recognized in this case.
The ONCA applied the Anns/Cooper test (a duty of care analysis established by the SCC in an earlier decision) to establish a novel duty of care. The Court found:
- That it was foreseeable that minors might take a car from Rankin’s Garage that was made easily available to them and may result in injuries; and
- That there was sufficient proximity between Rankin’s Garage and JJ because Rankin’s Garage should have had minors in mind when considering security measures at the car garage.
Justice Andromache Karakatsanis, writing for the majority of the SCC, did acknowledge that the garage ought to have known about the risk of theft. However, the SCC held that determining whether something is “reasonably foreseeable” is an objective test and there was no evidence to establish that bodily harm resulting from the theft of the vehicle was reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances. The evidence did not make it reasonably foreseeable that the stolen car might be driven in a manner that would cause personal injury. Therefore, the SCC concluded that the foreseeability stage of the Anns/Cooper test had not been met and the SCC refused to find a new duty of care.
The SCC stated:
[I]t does not automatically flow from evidence of the risk of theft in general that a garage owner should have considered the risk of physical injury.
… 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.
The SCC makes it clear that a duty of care requires that the risk of harm be reasonably foreseeable and not a mere possibility.
The SCC also concluded that JJ’s criminal conduct was irrelevant in analyzing whether a duty of care existed. A business may owe a duty of care even if a plaintiff participates in criminal or immoral activity. Furthermore, this type of behaviour may be considered when assessing for contributory negligence.
In conclusion, the majority of the SCC allowed the appeal and dismissed the claim against Rankin’s Garage.
If you or a loved one have suffered injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident, please contact the experienced and award winning lawyers at Cuming & Gillespie LLP online or at 403-571-0555. It is important that you call us promptly so we can help you understand your rights and the potential to recover compensation for your injuries. Call our office for a free consultation to determine how we can help you following a motor vehicle accident.