The Village of Paisley, population 1,100, is situated in the heart of Bruce County. Until recently, its claim to fame was its annual Beef Fest held every August. Recently, the Ontario Court of Appeal cast a spotlight on this quiet village in a decision involving one of its local garages.
On October 3, 2016 the Court of Appeal released its decision in the case of J. J. v. C.C. One of the Defendants in that case was Rankin’s Garage and Sales, known by the locals as “Rankin’s Garage”. The Court found Rankin’s Garage partially responsible for serious injuries suffered by a teen who helped steal a vehicle from its lot before it crashed.
On July 8, 2006 J.J., then 15 years of age, met up with his friends, C.C. (age 16) and T.T. (age 16) at the dam in Paisley, Ontario. C.C. and T.T. shared eight beers T.T. had brought with him. C.C. testified that J.J. did not have any of the beer. The three boys walked to C.C.’s house around 8:30 p.m. where C.C. and T.T. continued to drink beer. C.C.’s mother had purchased a case of beer (24) for the boys to drink.
C.C.’s mother went to bed prior to 11:00 p.m., leaving the boys unsupervised. C.C. found a bottle of vodka later that evening and the boys drank vodka mixed with orange juice. They also shared a single marijuana cigarette. T.T. went home later that evening. C.C. and J.J. left the house around the same time, setting in motion a series of events that ended with a crash and serious injuries to J.J.
According to C.C., the two boys walked around Paisley with the intent of stealing things from unlocked cars. They ended up at Rankin’s Garage, which services and sells used cars and trucks. The garage property was not secured. C.C. testified that he checked two cars on the lot. He found an unlocked Toyota Camry parked behind the garage. The keys to the Camry were in the ashtray. C.C. decided to steal the car even though he did not have a driver’s licence and had never driven a car before. J.J. got into the car as a passenger. The plan was to drive to the nearby town of Walkerton to pick up a friend. The car crashed on the way there. J.J. suffered a catastrophic brain injury.
C.C. pleaded guilty to theft under $5,000, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm and possession of stolen property obtained by theft. A charge of driving with over 80 milligrams of alcohol in his blood was dropped. C.C.’s mother pled guilty to a charge of supplying alcohol to minors. J.J. was not charged with any criminal offences.
J.J. sued C.C., Rankin’s Garage and C.C.’s mother for negligence. The trial judge instructed the jury that Rankin’s Garage owed J.J. a duty of care “because people who [are] entrusted with the possession of motor vehicles must assure themselves that the youth in their community are not able to take possession of such dangerous objects.”
The jury found C.C., C.C.’s mother and Rankin’s Garage negligent. J.J. was found contributorily negligent. The jury offered the following comments:
- Rankin’s Garage’s negligence arose out of leaving the car unlocked; leaving the key in the car; knowing (or ought to have known) of the potential risk of theft; having very little security; and testimony inconsistencies.
- C.C.’s mother’s negligence arose out of providing alcohol to minors; failing to supervise minors; and failing to keep her own alcohol secure.
- C.C.’s negligence arose out of drinking underage; not having a driver’s licence; stealing a car; impaired operation of a car; and trespassing.
- J.J.’s contributory negligence arose out of willingly getting into a stolen car; knowing C.C. did not have a driver’s licence; knowing that C.C. was impaired; knowing that C.C. was an inexperienced driver; and participating in stealing a car.
The jury apportioned liability as follows:
- 37% – Rankin’s Garage
- 30% – C.C.’s mother
- 23% – C.C.
- 10% – J.J.
The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the trial decision.
Justice Grant Huscroft, speaking for the three-judge panel, correctly identified the central issue as “whether [Rankin’s Garage] owed a duty of care to a minor involved in stealing a car from [a] garage and car dealership”. He further commented “On the face of things, the notion that an innocent party could owe a duty of care to someone who steals from [it] seems extravagant … but matters are not so simple”. He noted that “the finding that a duty of care is owed to a third party is relatively rare in cases arising out of the theft of a vehicle.” He added that in most cases, a duty of care to a third party is not usually found because injury to the third party is not reasonably foreseeable.
In addressing the negligence of Rankin’s Garage, the court noted that the stolen car was left unlocked with the keys in it; the car was known to be operational; it was stolen from a business rather than a private owner; and it was stolen by minors in the context of knowledge that unsecured vehicles were at risk of theft.
The Court echoed many of the comments of the trial judge; an unlocked car with keys left in it is an inviting target to an impaired person looking for transportation; it was foreseeable that injury could occur if a vehicle was used by inebriated teenagers; and there were no policy reasons to negate or limit the duty of care owed by Rankin’s Garage.
The Court’s decision to uphold the trial verdict weighed heavily on the “practices” of the garage. Several witnesses testified that Rankin’s Garage had a practice of leaving cars unlocked with keys in them. Customers dropping off cars were sometimes instructed by Rankin’s Garage to leave car keys under floor mats, in the ashtray, or over the visor. Evidence at trial confirmed that other garages in the area had drop boxes or locked boxes for their customers’ keys. The owner of the vehicle which was stolen testified that his vehicles were regularly serviced by Rankin’s Garage. He would always leave the keys in them when he dropped them off in front of the garage. He did not think that his cars were always locked when he returned to pick them up.
The Court also considered evidence that vehicle thefts in the area were a known historical problem. Officer Pittman gave evidence that vehicle theft and mischief – rummaging through vehicles – was a common occurrence within the detachment area. The OPP encouraged residents to lock their vehicles. Newspaper and radio messages had been used, along with a project involving auxiliary police checking vehicles and notifying owners if they were found unlocked.
In commenting on the issue of foreseeability, the Court found that Rankin’s Garage was easily accessible by anyone. There was no evidence of any security measures designed to keep people off the property when the business was not open. Cars were left unlocked with the keys in them. The risk of theft was clear. In these circumstances, the Court reasoned that it was foreseeable that minors might take a car from Rankin’s Garage that was made easily available to them. Evidence that a vehicle had been stolen from Rankin’s Garage years earlier for joyriding, and that vehicle theft and mischief were common occurrences in the area, reinforced this conclusion. The Court noted “It is a matter of common sense that minors might harm themselves in joyriding, especially if they are impaired by alcohol or drugs”. The Court further noted that Rankin’s Garage should have had minors like J.J. in mind when considering security measures, adding that Rankin’s Garage had care and control of many vehicles for commercial purposes; with that comes the responsibility of securing them against minors, in whose hands they are potentially dangerous. The Court found that securing these vehicles was not an “onerous obligation”. Rather, it was a simple matter of locking the vehicles and storing the keys.
The Court next considered the notion that “establishing liability for the injuries of someone who participates in a theft is offensive to society standards”. Underlying this sentiment was the notion that wrongdoers should be responsible for the damage they cause to themselves by their own wrongdoing. In addressing this issue, the Court commented that “sentiment is not principle … it is well established that the duty of care operates independently of the illegal or immoral conduct of an injured party”.
The Court concluded that Rankin’s Garage had not only an interest in securing the vehicles on its property, both as owner of some vehicles and as bailee of others, but also a responsibility. Rankin’s Garage could easily have met the standard of care by ensuring that all vehicles were locked and keys protected – precautions regularly taken in the industry.
In addressing the jury’s apportionment of liability, the Court noted that there was “room for reasonable disagreement” adding that “another jury might well have apportioned liability differently”. The Court chose not to interfere with the jury’s decision on the apportionment of liability, commenting that “It cannot be said that the jury’s decision is so plainly unreasonable and unjust as to satisfy the Court that no jury reviewing the evidence as a whole and acting judicially could have reached it”.
This decision has garnered mainstream media attention. Publications, including the KW Record, Toronto Sun and the local Paisley newspaper, have all written about this decision, with some unfavourable commentary. Much of it focusses on the principle that wrongdoers should be responsible for the damage they cause to themselves by their wrongdoing. Some suggest that the party being robbed should not have been found more responsible than the teenagers who robbed it.
Rankin’s Garage’s lawyer indicated that he expects his client will seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.