Stolen Car from a Garage Results in No Duty of Care Owed by Garage Owner
The Supreme Court of Canada recently decided that a garage owner does not owe a duty of care to those injured as a result of theft from their premises.
In Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J.,[2018 SCC 19] two minors, J and his friend C were drinking and smoking marijuana at C’s mother’s house. They broke into Rankin’s commercial car garage, which was not secured, and began checking for unlocked cars. C found an unlocked car, that had the keys inside and, despite neither having a license nor ever having driven before, decided to steal the car and drive to a nearby town to pick up a friend. J was a passenger. C drove on the highway and got into a collision where J suffered a catastrophic brain injury.
The question for the Supreme Court’s determination was whether Rankin owned a duty of care to those who are injured as a result of the car theft from the garage.
At the original jury Trial, the jury found Rankin’s garage 37% responsible, C’s mother (who provided some of the alcohol) 30% responsible, C (the driver) 23% responsible and J (the injured passenger) 10% responsible for his own injuries. The Trial judge held that Rankin ought to have known that leaving an unlocked vehicle, with the keys in the ashtray, could result in someone getting hurt. The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld this decision and Rankin appealed to the SCC.
Since there was no existing Canadian case law determining whether a duty of care exists in this circumstance, the Anns/Cooper analyses was conducted.
In Canada, the analysis used to determine whether a duty of care exists comes from the British case of Anns v Merton London Borough Council, and as further used in the Canadian jurisprudence by the SCC in Cooper v Hobart, [2001 SCC 79] – commonly referred to as the Anns-Cooper test.
To establish a duty of care, there must be a relationship of proximity in which the failure to take reasonable care might foreseeably cause loss or harm to the plaintiff. Once foreseeability and proximity are made out, a prima facie duty of care is established. The duty of care is only established if the “type of damage that occurred was reasonably foreseeable to the class of plaintiff that was damaged”.
Whether or not something is reasonably foreseeable is an objective test. The question is “properly focused on whether foreseeability was present prior to the incident occurring” and “not with the aid of 20/20 hindsight.”
The question here was not if the theft was reasonably foreseeable, but whether the resulting harm suffered was reasonably foreseeable to someone in Rankin’s position, when considering the security of the vehicles stored at the garage.
As the lower Courts had determined, the evidence could establish that Rankin ought to have known of the risk of theft. The stolen car was left unlocked, the key was inside, and there was very little security in the garage. However, physical injury is only foreseeable when there is something in the facts to suggest there is not only a risk of theft, but also a risk that the stolen vehicle might be operated in a dangerous manner. In other words, there must be something in the “factual matrix” that could “connect the theft and subsequent unsafe driving of the stolen car and thus make personal injury foreseeable.” It is not automatic that a thief would operate a vehicle unsafely – there must be “some circumstance or evidence.”
Furthermore, Justice Karakatsanis for the SCC majority held the risk of theft in general does not automatically include the risk of theft by minors. Justice Karakatsanis held that the Court of Appeal relied on many assumptions to link the theft by minors to the personal injury:
45 …[the Court of Appeal] reasoned that because the business stored many vehicles, it had a responsibility to secure them against minors, in whose hands they are potentially dangerous. It accepted that a general risk of theft includes a risk of theft by minors (paras. 53 and 57); storing the cars created an “inviting target” for theft and joyriding by minors (para. 68); and that minors might harm themselves in joyriding, especially if they are impaired by alcohol or drugs (para. 53). Thus, the Court of Appeal determined that the garage “should have had minors . . . in mind when [it] considered security measures” (para. 56).
However, Justice Karakatsanis cautioned that just because something is possible does mean it meets the threshold of being reasonable foreseeable. There must be some “evidentiary basis” before a court can conclude that the risk of theft includes the risk of theft by minors. In this case, there was insufficient evidence to suggest that minors would “frequent the premises at night, or be involved in joyriding or theft.”
Aside from evidence that could establish a risk of theft in general, there was nothing else in this case to connect the risk of theft of the car to the risk of someone being physically injured. The evidence did not provide specific circumstances to make it reasonably foreseeable that the stolen car might be driven in a way that would cause personal injury.
In conclusion, it was held that J (the injured passenger) did not met the burden of establishing a prima facie duty of care owed by Rankin. A business will only owe a duty to someone who is injured following the theft of a vehicle when, in addition to theft, the unsafe operation of the stolen vehicle was reasonably foreseeable.
The SCC did have a dissenting position. Justice Brown disagreed with the majority and would have upheld the lower Courts’ decisions and dismissed Rankin’s appeal. Justice Brown was of the opinion that a garage owner who leaves keys in an unlocked car could reasonably have foreseen that someone would get hurt.
This case has provided further clarification to the duty of care owed by garage owners who may find themselves in a similar position.