A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Court Refuses to Apply Mode of Operation Rule to Injury Claim Caused by Leaking Shampoo Bottle

By on March 4, 2016 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Yolanda White was shopping with her daughter in defendant’s Fine Fare Supermarket when she fell. While about 3 feet from the checkout counter, she slipped and fell on liquid dish detergent that had spilled on the floor. In White v. 525 Meat Corp., 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 372 (App. Div. Feb. 22, 2016), she sued the defendant supermarket owner for her personal injuries.

The defendant moved for summary judgment at the end of discovery. The trial judge found that the plaintiff had not proven that the defendant was negligent – there was no circumstantial or direct evidence as to how long the dish washing liquid had been there. The trial judge also found that there should be no inference of negligence based upon the store manager’s conflicting statements that he saw the accident, the absence of the surveillance video of the accident, and that the detergent bottle was discarded.

Further, the trial judge found that the mode of operation rule did not apply to infer defendant’s negligence. The court concluded that the rule only applied to situations in which self-packaging in a store created a foreseeable risk of danger of spilled materials, which had not occurred here. Thus, the trial court granted summary judgment, dismissing the complaint.

Upon appeal, one of the arguments advanced by the plaintiff was that summary judgment should have been denied because the mode of operation rule applied. If this rule applied, it would provide an inference of negligence against the defendant business by relieving the plaintiff from the burden of proving that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of a particular dangerous condition, if the defendant’s mode of operation created the condition that caused the accident.

Under the recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, 223 N.J. 245 (2015), the court defined a supermarket’s “mode of operation to include the customer’s necessary handling of the goods when checking out, an employee’s handling of goods during checkout, and the characteristics of the goods themselves and the way in which they are packaged.” The Court made clear that the rule does not apply where there is no evidence that the accident bears the slightest relationship to any self-service component of the business.

Here, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that the mode of operation rule did not apply. There was no relationship between the spill of a liquid detergent bottle causing the plaintiff’s fall and a self-service component of the defendant’s business. A customer placed the bottle in a cart and it leaked near the checkout counter. The liquid was not packaged by the customer or the store employee and there was no indication that a customer or employee’s handling of the merchandise caused the spill. Thus, the Appellate Division found the trial court was correct in not applying the mode of operation doctrine to infer negligence against the defendant and affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the defendant supermarket.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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