• 09/30/2015

    New Jersey Supreme Court Limits Scope of “Mode of Operation” Doctrine To Self-Service Business Operations

    Client Alert

    Written by: Adam B. Kaplan, Esq.

    Historically, plaintiffs asserting claims for personal injury utilized the “mode of operation” doctrine to seek a jury charge imposing an inference of negligence on a defendant when the alleged injury was caused by a “dangerous condition” of the property. The benefit to the plaintiff was that the owner of the property, typically a retail business, was presumed to have knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. When the New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered the doctrine, the high court decided to limit, rather than expand, its application. More specifically, in its Opinion issued on September 28, 2015 in Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that the mode of operation doctrine should be applied only to “limited circumstances.” This Opinion represents the latest in a recent series of cases defining the scope of the doctrine and establishing the circumstances in which it may be applied. This decision potentially favors all businesses sued for personal injury arising out of alleged dangerous conditions of their property.

    In Prioleau, the plaintiff slipped and fell inside of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The plaintiff entered the store and walked to the counter to tell her son what she wanted to eat. The plaintiff then walked toward the restroom, where she slipped and fell on a substance that she described as “greasy and wet.” The plaintiff alleged that she slipped either on rain water that had been tracked in by other customers or on grease that had been tracked out to the dining area by kitchen employees.

    Over the objection of defense counsel, the trial court instructed the jury to consider the mode of operation doctrine. The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court’s mode of operation instruction was improper. The plaintiff then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which affirmed the Appellate Division’s majority ruling that the mode of operation doctrine did not apply to the facts of that case.

    In so ruling, the Supreme Court analyzed the history of cases applying the doctrine – and cases declining to apply it – and delineated several “principles” from those decisions. First, the mode of operation doctrine is limited to businesses that provide a self-service environment, in which customers independently handle merchandise. This includes retail businesses in which customers may come into direct contact with product displays, shelving, packaging, and other aspects of the facility that may pose an “increased risk” of injury to the customers.

    Second, the doctrine applies only to accidents occurring in areas affected by the business’s self-service operations. While this element may apply beyond the specific location of the self-service activity, such as a bin of green beans in a supermarket or a drink refill station in a restaurant, the critical factor is whether there is a “nexus between self-service components of the business and a risk of injury in the area where the accident occurred.”

    Third, the doctrine is not limited to cases in which customer negligence created the dangerous condition. It also may be applied when the injury resulted from the manner in which the defendant’s employees handled the merchandise or the inherent characteristics of the merchandise itself.

    Applying these factors, the Supreme Court concluded that the possibility that grease was tracked from the kitchen to the dining area bears no causal connection to any self-service component of the defendant’s business. Perhaps if the plaintiff had slipped while filling her cup at a drink refill station, the Court’s analysis would have been different. However, in the absence of any self-service component of the business operation, the Supreme Court declined to expand application of the mode of operation doctrine.

    You can read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc. by clicking here.

    For more information about this case or any other issue concerning the potential liability of your business, please contact one of the attorneys in our Trial and Insurance Defense practice group.

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