Supreme Court of Canada Clarifies the Scope of Existing Duties of Care

June 25, 2018

In Rankin (Rankin’s Garage and Sales) v. J.J., 2018 SCC 19, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified how it will interpret existing duties of care, in the context of a personal injury arising from the theft of a vehicle stored at a commercial garage, and the evidentiary requirements for establishing novel duties of care.

Facts

Two minors, who had been consuming alcohol and marijuana, were checking for unlocked cars with the intention of stealing the contents when they found a car at Rankin’s Garage and Sales (“Rankin’s Garage”) that was unlocked with the keys in the ashtray. The first minor, identified as “C”, decided to steal the car. C was not a licensed driver and had never driven a car on the road previously. The second minor, the Plaintiff in this matter, identified as “J”, went with him. They were 16 and 15 years old respectively at the time.  C crashed the car, resulting in the Plaintiff suffering a catastrophic brain injury.

Rankin’s Garage was located on a busy intersection. It did not have video cameras or a fence to secure its lot and the cars parked therein. Rankin gave evidence that the practice of the garage was to lock the cars at night and to store the keys in a safe. Evidence was submitted that there had been previous thefts of vehicles and their contents at Rankin’s Garage and in the surrounding area.

Issue

The primary issue on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was whether Rankin owed the Plaintiff a duty of care. At trial and at the Ontario Court of Appeal, it was found that Rankin did owe a duty of care to the Plaintiff.

Outcome

The Supreme Court of Canada split 7-2, with the majority allowing the appeal and holding that Rankin did not owe the Plaintiff a duty of care on the basis that:

  1. there was no previous case establishing a duty of care in the situation; and
  2. the Plaintiff did not offer sufficient evidence that the risk of the type of damage that occurred (a personal injury) was foreseeable to the class of Plaintiff (an individual who stole a car) that was harmed.

The majority highlighted the importance of framing the question of the foreseeability of the type of harm (a personal injury) to Rankin when considering the security of the vehicles stored at the garage.  In doing so they stated that, while previously established duties of care are to be interpreted broadly, they are not to be interpreted beyond the type of loss sustained.  In conducting this analysis, the majority was careful to distinguish between the Plaintiff who suffered a personal injury and a car owner whose contents had been stolen or whose car had been damaged. The majority was concerned that broadening the interpretation of the duty of care in this situation to automatically cover any physical injury that resulted from any act of negligence would consume existing duties of care (such as the duty of care between road users to each other, and between doctors and patients) and substantially broaden the existing duty of care category of foreseeable personal injury.

In conducting its novel duty of care analysis, the majority found that while the evidence presented indicated there was a risk of cars and their contents being stolen, the majority was unwilling to automatically assume, without evidence, that a stolen vehicle would be driven in a dangerous manner resulting in personal injury.  In particular, Justice Karakatsanis, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, stated at paragraph 34 that:

I do not accept that anyone that leaves a vehicle unlocked with the keys in it should always reasonably anticipate that someone could be injured if the vehicle were stolen. This would extend tort liability too far. Physical injury is only foreseeable when there is something in the facts to suggest that there is not only a risk of theft, but that the stolen vehicle might be operated in a dangerous manner. [Emphasis added]

Obiter

The majority held that Rankin did not owe a positive duty of care to secure the vehicles on its lot as they were not inherently dangerous.

The majority also held that the correct time for addressing the illegal conduct of the Plaintiff is when addressing contributory negligence, not when determining whether or not a duty of care existed. The Court was concerned that undertaking such an analysis when deciding whether a duty of care existed may serve to deny a Plaintiff compensation when the Defendant was primarily at fault for the loss.

Takeaways

The majority was keen to impart in its decision that it was not willing to simply accept that, because a personal injury to a Plaintiff had been suffered, a duty of care to that person existed.  In its decision, the majority stressed that the courts would also need to look at the relationship between the negligent conduct and the harm suffered and whether it was foreseeable.  It was not willing to concede that simply because a personal injury had occurred, that it was necessarily foreseeable.

When defending a claim where the Plaintiff is attempting to establish a novel duty of care, the Court will require evidence for each step in the sequence of events to show that it was reasonably foreseeable that the allegedly negligent act would cause the loss. This is going to be particularly true when it comes to common activities such as driving or storing vehicles which may be dangerous when operated in an unsafe manner, but not necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, as would be the case with weapons.

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