Supreme Court of Canada finds garage owner not liable for car-stealing teens.
16, May 16, 2018 - Filed in: Court Cases
"J and his friend C, both then minors, were at the house of C’s mother drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Sometime 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 R (a commercial car garage) located near the main intersection. The garage property was not secured, and the boys began walking around the lot checking for unlocked cars. C found an unlocked car parked behind the garage. He opened it and found its keys in the ashtray. Though he did not have a driver’s license and had never driven a car on the road before, C decided to steal the car so that he could go and pick up a friend in a nearby town. C told J to “get in”, which he did. C drove the car out of the garage and on the highway where the car crashed. J suffered a catastrophic brain injury. Through his litigation guardian, J sued R, C and C’s mother for negligence.
At trial, it was held that R owed a duty of care to J. The jury found that all parties had been negligent and made the following apportionment of liability: R’s garage, 37 percent liable; C, 23 percent liable; C’s mother, 30 percent liable; and J, 10 percent liable. The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s finding that R owed a duty of care to J and dismissed the appeal.
The only issue in this appeal is whether R owed J a duty of care."
The S.C.C. held (7:2): appeal allowed, claim against R dismissed.
Justice Karakatsanis wrote as follows (at paras. 2, 66-67):
"...this case is easily resolved based on a straightforward application of existing tort law principles. This requires analytical rigour and a proper evidentiary basis. The plaintiff did not provide sufficient evidence to support the establishment of a duty of care in these circumstances. While the risk of theft was reasonably foreseeable, the evidence did not establish that it was foreseeable that someone could be injured by the stolen vehicle. Here, there was no evidence to support the inference that the stolen vehicle might be operated in an unsafe manner, causing injury. When considering the security of the automobiles stored at the garage, there was no reason upon this record for someone in the position of the defendant garage owner to foresee the risk of injury. I would allow the appeal. 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.
Under tort law, liability is only imposed when a defendant breaches a duty of care.
The Anns/Cooper test ensures that a duty of care will only be recognized when it is fair and just to do so. As such, it is necessary to approach each step in the test with analytical rigour. While common sense can play a useful role in assessing reasonable foreseeability, it is not enough, on its own, to ground the recognition of a new duty of care in this case. 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.
This is not to say that a duty of care will never exist when a car is stolen from a commercial establishment and involved in an accident. Another plaintiff may establish that circumstances were such that the business ought to have foreseen the risk of personal injury. However, on this record, I conclude that the courts below erred in holding that Rankin’s Garage owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. ..."
Note: The summary and body are drawn from Eugene Meehan’s SupremeAdvocacy Weekly Updates for the Law Community.