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Mode of Operation Doctrine Rejected for Accident Caused by Fall on Laundry Detergent in Mailroom of Apartment Building

By on August 3, 2018 in Civil Lawsuits with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Maryann Zagloba injured her back when she slipped on laundry detergent spilled in the mailroom of her apartment building. She sued the owner of the building, Vista Gardens Associates LLC (“Vista Gardens”), for her injuries. She argued that the mode of operation doctrine should apply and, as a result, that she did not have to prove either actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. In Zagloba v. Vista Gardens Associates, LLC, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1789 (App. Div. July 26, 2018), the issue on appeal was the applicability of the mode of operation doctrine to this setting.

Plaintiff was a tenant in Vista Garden’s apartment building. One Sunday, she was in the mailroom, carrying her laundry basket on her way to do her laundry, when she slipped on detergent spilled on the floor near the laundry room door. The two rooms were connected and the tenants entered the laundry room through the mailroom. While the building provided coin operated washers and dryers, the tenants had to provide their own laundry detergent.

Under New Jersey law, the landlord of a multi-family dwelling has the duty to “maintain all parts of the structure in good repair.” In particular, Vista Gardens would have the affirmative duty “to discover and eliminate dangerous conditions, to maintain the premises in safe condition, and to avoid creating dangerous conditions that would render the premises unsafe.” To pursue a negligence claim against Vista Gardens, the plaintiff must demonstrate “that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident.”

If the mode of operation doctrine applied, the plaintiff would be relieved of the burden of having to prove notice.  This doctrine would apply when “a dangerous condition is likely to occur as the result of the nature of the business, the property’s condition, or a demonstrable pattern of conduct or incidents.” If the doctrine applied, the burden would then shift to the defendant to “come forward with rebutting proof that it had taken prudent and reasonable steps to avoid the potential hazard.”

The trial court found this doctrine inapplicable to the circumstances of this accident. The trial court judge also found that the plaintiff failed to prove prior notice of the condition. Thus, the court granted summary judgment to the defendant, dismissing the complaint. The plaintiff appealed that dismissal, claiming that the trial court judge erred in not applying the mode of operation doctrine.

The Appellate Division rejected that argument. The Court found that this doctrine has never been expanded beyond the self-service setting, “in which customers independently handle merchandise without the assistance of employees or may come into direct contact with product displays, shelving, packaging, and other aspects of the facility that may present a risk.” Previously, the Court had refused to apply the doctrine simply because the risk of injury was inherent in the nature of the defendant’s operation.

Here, while it was foreseeable that tenants would bring detergent into the mailroom and into the laundry room, tenants could not purchase detergent in the building. Hence, there was no self-service aspect of the incident that caused the plaintiff’s accident. Thus, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that, under these circumstances, the mode of operation doctrine did not apply. The Court affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit.



Betsy G. Ramos

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.


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