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Mode of Operation Rule Does Not Apply to Fall From Liquid on Floor Allegedly Resulting From a Water Bottle Spill

By on September 9, 2022 in Negligence with 0 Comments

The plaintiff Bridgett Knight alleged that she slipped and fell near the exit door of the defendant Family Dollar Stores as a result of liquid that she claimed emanated from a bottled beverage located in a self-service refrigerator near the cash register.  The plaintiff contended that the mode of operation doctrine should apply to this spill, relieving her of the burden of proving the defendant store’s actual or constructive notice of the condition.  In Knight v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 2022 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1580 (App. Div. August 31, 2022), the Appellate Division was asked to determine whether the mode of operation rule should be applied to the circumstances.

If the mode of operation doctrine applied, the plaintiff would be relieved of demonstrating the defendant’s actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition on its premises (i.e., the liquid on the floor).  The rule would be applied when a “dangerous condition is likely to occur as a result of the [defendant’s] business, the property’s condition, or demonstrable pattern of conduct or incidents.”  Further, when the defendant’s business has a “self-service” method of operation, the defendant is required to anticipate debris falling on the ground resulting from the carelessness of either customers or employees.”

The plaintiff argued that the defendant store permitted its customers to help themselves to beverages contained in a refrigerator display.  Thus, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s business meets the definition of self-service.  However, the Court pointed out that this rule would only apply to accidents occurring in areas affected by the business’s self service operations, which could extend beyond the produce aisle of supermarkets.  But, there must be a nexus between the self-service components of the defendant’s business and risk of injury in the area where the accident occurred. 

At the trial court level, the judge granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the complaint.  The court found that the plaintiff failed to present any facts that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition.  The judge also found that the mode of operation exception was inapplicable to the present facts.

Upon review by the Appellate Division, the Court agreed with the trial court judge.  The Appellate Division referenced the recent Supreme Court case of Jeter v. Sam’s Club, in which the Supreme Court found the mode of operation rule inapplicable to a fall on loose grapes when the grapes were sold in a closed and sealed clamshell container. This manner of sale provided “virtually no chance of spillage during ordinary permissible customer handling.” 

Similarly, the Appellate Division here found that there was no evidence “supporting an inference that any of the bottles in the refrigerator were opened and spilled by another customer prior to plaintiff’s fall.”  Further, there was no evidence produced that the defendant’s business practice permitted its sealed self-serve beverages to be opened and consumed on the premises.  Thus, the Appellate Division ruled that the plaintiff had failed to provide the necessary “nexus between the dangerous condition and defendant’s mode of operation.”

Because the Appellate Division found that the mode of operation rule did not apply, to establish a claim for premises liability, the plaintiff would have to show that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition.  The Court found that the record was “devoid of any evidence” demonstrating the source of the substance or how long it was present before plaintiff’s fall.  There were no photographs or video showing the substance on the date of the incident.  The incident report only claimed that plaintiff slipped on a liquid on the floor but did not indicate the defendant was on notice of any spilled liquid near the store’s exit before plaintiff’s fall.

Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court decision, dismissing the complaint.

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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 30 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 2020-2023, 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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