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Commercial car garage did not owe duty of care to teenager seriously injured in car stolen from the garage

A majority of the Supreme Court of Canada has held that a commercial car garage did not owe a duty of care to a teenage passenger who suffered catastrophic brain injury while riding in a car stolen from the garage [Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J., 2018 SCC 19]. The car had been left unlocked and with keys inside by the garage, when it was stolen by the plaintiff and his teenage friend. The friend, who was unlicensed and had never driven on a road before, then unsafely operated and crashed the car on a highway, causing injury to the plaintiff. The two teens had also consumed alcohol and marijuana before stealing the car. However, the Court emphasized that this decision does not mean that a duty of care will never exist in such circumstances.

The appellant garage had argued that illegal acts by the plaintiff severed or negated any duty of care relationship between the parties, but the Court disagreed. The Court noted that illegality can operate as a defence to a tort action in limited circumstances where it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the legal system (for example, where to allow the plaintiff’s tort claim would be to permit the plaintiff to profit from his or her wrong, as described by the Supreme Court of Canada in Hall v. Hebert, [1993] 2 S.C.R. 159 at pages 169 and 179-80) but this did not apply in Rankin. The Court noted that plaintiff wrongdoing is integrated into the analysis through contributory negligence, as occurred in Rankin.

In Rankin the Court held that it was not enough to determine simply whether the theft of the vehicle was foreseeable. To impose a duty of care there must be some circumstance or evidence to suggest that a person in the position of a commercial garage ought also to have reasonably foreseen the risk of injury as a result of the stolen vehicle potentially being operated unsafely.

The Ontario courts had relied upon the risk of theft by minors (who could well be inexperienced or reckless drivers) to connect the failure to secure the vehicles with the nature of the harm suffered. The Supreme Court of Canada disagreed and held that the risk of theft in general does not automatically include the risk of theft by minors. In Rankin 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. Thus, 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.

Case summary by Karl Roemer