Supreme Court of Canada Finds Garage Does Not Owe Duty of Care to Teen Injured After Stealing Vehicle

The notion of a duty of care is a legal obligation imposed on an individual (including corporations) to undertake a reasonable standard of care while performing an act that could foreseeably harm others. The Supreme Court of Canada recently issued a decision stating that a parking garage does not owe a duty of care to two teenagers to stole and crashed a car.

The teenagers (“J” and “C”) were minors at the time the events unfolded. They had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana at the house belonging to C’s mother. Sometime after midnight they left the house to walk around town with the intention of stealing valuables from unlocked cars. They eventually made their way to a commercial car garage (the “garage”). After discovering the garage was not locked, J and C began walking around the lot checking for unlocked cars. C found a car unlocked and with the keys in the ashtray. Despite not having a license or having ever driven a car on a road before, C stole the car so he could go and pick up another friend. C told J to “get in” and the two drove out of the car onto the highway where it crashed. J suffered a catastrophic brain injury in the accident. J’s mother sued the garage, C, and C’s mother for negligence.

The road to the Supreme Court

The trial judge determined the garage, in addition to C and C’s mother, owed a duty of care to J. The judge assigned 37% of the liability to the garage, 23% to C, 30% to C’s mother and 10% to J. The garage appealed the decision, only to have the Ontario Court of Appeal uphold it. The only issue before the Supreme Court of Canada was whether the garage owed J a duty of care.

The Supreme Court noted that Canadian case law offers no clear guidance on whether a business owner owes a duty of care to people who are injured while driving in a vehicle stolen from the business. When a duty of care cannot be easily established, Canadian courts can apply what is known as the Anns/Cooper test. The first stage of an Anns/Cooper test is used to establish foreseeability and proximity, meaning the plaintiff has to establish that the harm caused could be reasonably foreseeable, and that the defendant had an obligation to reduce the likelihood of harm.

Applying the Anns/Cooper test

The court determined it wasn’t enough in this case to simple ask whether the theft of a vehicle was reasonably foreseeable. Instead, the question to be asked should have been whether the harm suffered was reasonably foreseeable to someone in the garage when it was considering the security of vehicles stored at its garage. The judges who issued the previous decisions for the case determined that an unsecure lot could lead to theft of cars by minors, and since minors can be inexperienced drivers, it is reasonably foreseeable that a minor could be involved in a serious accident, resulting in great personal injury.

However, the Supreme Court found the risk of theft should not automatically include the risk of theft by minors. The Supreme Court found insufficient evidence to suggest minors would frequent the garage at night or be involved in stealing vehicles from the garage. Without this evidence, the Supreme Court found that it could not was not reasonably foreseeable for the garage to think a stolen care might be driven by a minor, resulting in personal injury. Furthermore, the garage did not have a positive duty to guard against the risk of theft by minors. The Supreme Court concluded that a business will only owe a duty to someone who is injured following the theft of a vehicle when, in addition to the theft, the unsafe operation of the stolen vehicle was reasonably foreseeable.

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Should you find yourself seriously injured following an automobile accident, your first step should be to speak to a qualified and experienced personal injury lawyer. The lawyers of Derfel Injury Law assist our clients in claims for damages stemming for automobile accidents, helping to identify every potential avenue for compensation. Please contact us online or by phone at 416-847-3580 to talk to us today.