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Christopher Bakker, a litigation lawyer at SHK Law

Christopher Bakker

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Authors: Christopher Bakker

ARE YOUR CARS LOCKED AT NIGHT?

We do not usually comment on decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada because they are often lengthy and, frankly, pretty dry reading.  This cannot be said, however, for the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Rankin’s Garage & Sales v. JJ (or at least the dry part).  Rankin’s Garage may well prove important to many business owners and their insurers.

The facts of the case are straightforward.  One evening in July 2006, in Paisley, Ontario, the Plaintiff, JJ, and his friend, CC (then 15 and 16 years old), were at CC’s mother’s house.  CC’s mother, DC, had been supplying the teenagers with alcohol and, when DC went to bed, the boys continued to drink and smoke marijuana.  Thereafter, the boys left the house to walk around the town and steal valuables from unlocked cars.  They entered Rankin’s Garage and found an unlocked car with its keys in the ashtray.  Although he did not have a driver’s licence and had not driven on the road before, CC decided to steal the car and told JJ to get in.  While they were on the highway, the car crashed, and JJ suffered a catastrophic brain injury.  Rankin’s Garage, CC, and DC were sued for negligence.

At the end of the trial in the Ontario Superior Court, the jury found Rankin’s Garage 37% responsible, CC 23% responsible, DC 30% responsible, and JJ himself 10% responsible for his injuries.  The trial judge had found that the owner of Rankin’s Garage should have known that leaving an unlocked vehicle with the keys in it could result in intoxicated teenagers like JJ getting hurt.  Therefore, the Court found that Rankin’s Garage owed JJ a duty of care.  (In law, a duty of care is a requirement to act responsibly to avoid harm to others.  The harm must be reasonably foreseeable, or the duty will not exist.)  Rankin’s Garage appealed this decision.

The Ontario Court of Appeal held that, as the property that housed Rankin’s Garage was easily accessible by anyone, the risk of theft was clear and it was foreseeable that minors might take a car from Rankin’s Garage. In these circumstances, it was “a matter of common sense” that minors might harm themselves while joyriding, especially if impaired by alcohol or drugs.  Rankin’s Garage appealed this decision as well.

To determine whether Rankin’s Garage owed JJ a duty of care, the Supreme Court of Canada looked at whether the garage owner should have known that his failure to take care could cause harm to someone like JJ.  While the garage owner should have known that leaving a car unlocked with the keys inside could result in it being stolen, the evidence did not show that he should have known someone could be injured by a stolen car.  This is because there was no evidence suggesting that a stolen vehicle would be driven unsafely.  In its decision, the majority (7-2) of the Supreme Court noted that, just because something is possible does not mean that it is reasonably foreseeable under the law.  It therefore held that Rankin’s Garage did not owe a duty of care to JJ.

In reaching its finding, the Supreme Court noted that JJ’s criminal conduct was irrelevant in analyzing whether a duty of care existed or contributory negligence was attributable to Rankin’s Garage.  As the Supreme Court has held in previous decisions, the fact that JJ had engaged in immoral or illegal conduct did not preclude him from claiming for damages against a party allegedly acting in a negligent manner.  Such behaviour can, however, form part of the Court’s analysis with respect to the wrongdoer’s percentage of fault.

While the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the claim against Rankin’s Garage, the key take-away from this decision is to be aware that, if someone trespasses in your store and steals something, you are not completely sheltered from liability.  Simply put, the illegal conduct involving the theft of a vehicle does not bar the bad guy’s recovery against you if something goes terribly wrong.  The illegal conduct will only factor into a contributory negligence analysis, which may reduce your liability exposure.