Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J. 2018 SCC 19 (Rankin)
The Supreme Court of Canada recently held (7-2) that the owners of a commercial garage did not owe a duty of care to a boy who was seriously injured after he and a friend stole a car from the garage even though the garage was negligent in allowing the car to be stolen.
In the summer of 2006, in the village of Paisley, Ontario, the plaintiff J (who was then 15 years old) and his friend C (then 16 years old) were at C’s mother’s house. The boys drank alcohol, some of which was provided by C’s mother, and smoked marijuana.
After midnight, the boys left the house intending to steal valuables from unlocked cars. Eventually, they made their way to Rankin’s Garage & Sales, a business located near Paisley’s main intersection. The garage property was not secured and the boys began checking for unlocked cars. C found an unlocked Toyota Camry parked behind the garage. The keys were in the car’s ashtray. Although he did not have a driver’s license and had never driven on the road before, C decided to steal the car so he could go and pick up a friend in nearby Walkerton, Ontario. C told J to get in, which he did. C drove the car out of the garage and headed towards Walkerton. On the highway, the car crashed and J suffered a catastrophic brain injury.
Through his litigation guardian, J sued Rankin’s Garage, his friend, C and C’s mother for negligence. The issue on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether Rankin’s Garage owed J a duty of care.
Justice Karakatsanis wrote a majority decision for seven justices of the court. Justice Brown wrote a dissenting decision (with Justice Gascon concurring).
The majority held that the case could be resolved based on a straightforward application of existing tort law principles. It held that J did not provide sufficient evidence to support that Rankin’s Garage owed him a duty of care.
Because there is no clear guidance in Canadian case law on whether a business like the garage owes a duty of care to someone who was injured following the theft of a vehicle, the Supreme Court conducted an Anns/Cooper analysis. That analysis provides that 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 established, a prima facie duty of care is made out. The question is an objective one, and properly focused, is whether foreseeability was present prior to the accident and not with the aid of 20/20 hindsight.
The court held that although the results of this case were tragic, physical injury to J was only foreseeable when there is something in the facts to suggest that there is not only a risk of theft of the car, but also a risk that the stolen car might be operated in a dangerous manner. The risk of theft in general does not automatically include the risk of theft by minors. The court found that in this case there was insufficient evidence to suggest that minors would frequent the premises at night or be involved in joyriding or theft. Rankin’s Garage, as a commercial garage, did not have a positive duty to guard against the risk of theft by minors. The fact that J was a minor does not automatically create an obligation for the company to act.
The court held that J had not met the burden of establishing a prima facie duty of care because reasonable foreseeability could not be established on the factual record of the case. 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 dissenting judges held a view that many may believe was more logical. They held that the concept of “reasonable foreseeability” represents a low threshold and is usually quite easy to overcome. A plaintiff must merely provide evidence to persuade the court that the risk of the type of damage that occurred was reasonably foreseeable to the class of the plaintiff that was damaged. In this case, both the trial judge and the Ontario Court of Appeal held that it was reasonably foreseeable that an individual such as J could suffer physical injury as a consequence of Rankin’s Garage’s negligence in failing to properly lock, secure and store vehicles. Justices Brown and Gascon concluded that the majority of the court had conceded that the risk of theft was reasonably foreseeable but, in order to hold the garage owner responsible, would have required additional evidence that theft would have occurred at the hands of a minor in order to find that physical injury to J was foreseeable. The dissenting judges held that minors are no less likely to steal cars than any other individual. In order to establish a duty of care, J was not required to show that the characteristics of the particular thief or the way in which the injury occurred were foreseeable. Imposition of a duty of care was conditioned only upon J showing that physical injury to him was reasonably foreseeable under any circumstances flowing from Rankin’s Garage’s negligence.