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Supermarket Found Not Liable For Plaintiff’s Fall Due To Water On Store’s Floor

By on January 29, 2021 in Liability with 2 Comments

Plaintiff Sara Quejada was shopping with her daughter at defendant’s supermarket when she slipped and fell on water as they were near the checkout area of the store.  Plaintiff did not know the source of the water. The issue in Quejada v. ShopRite, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 91 (App. Div. Jan. 19, 2021) was whether the defendant supermarket could be held responsible under the mode of operation rule.

Neither plaintiff nor her daughter saw anything on the floor before she fell but plaintiff noticed her clothing was wet after she fell.  She admitted that she did not know the source of the water.  Photographs taken following the fall do show some liquid on the floor but plaintiff could not say what the substance was or whether it was the cause of her fall.

The defendant supermarket moved for summary judgment before the trial court, which motion was granted.  The trial court judge noted the duty owed by premises owners to their business invitees and noted that liability “generally does not attach unless the owner had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition, or had reasonable opportunity to discover the condition.”  The trial court judge also considered whether the mode of operation rule applied.  If this rule applied, it “gives rise to a rebuttable inference that the defendant is negligent and obviates the need for the plaintiff to prove actual or constructive notice.” 

A business owner that permits its customers to handle products and equipment in a self-service setting, unsupervised by employees, does increase the risk that a dangerous condition will go undetected and a patron could be injured.  In a self-service setting, patrons may also be at risk from the manner in which the business employees handle the business’s products or equipment or due to the inherent quality of the merchandise.

The trial court judge concluded that even viewing the defendant’s store as self-service in nature, the plaintiff failed to establish any nexus between the liquid she alleged caused her fall and the supermarket’s mode of operation.  Hence, the trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

Upon appeal, the plaintiff contended that the facts did support an application of the mode of operation rule which relieved her of the burden of proving defendant’s actual or constructive notice of the condition.  The Appellate Division disagreed with the plaintiff’s argument.

The Court noted that this supermarket’s business did permit customers to help themselves to products that were shelved or contained on stands or in bins throughout the store. Thus, it does fit the definition of self-service but, the Court pointed out that “the rule applies only to accidents occurring in areas affected by the business’s self-service operations, which may extend beyond the produce aisle of supermarkets and other facilities traditionally associated with self-service activities.”  Thus, the dispositive factor is not the label given to a particular location but whether a nexus exists between the self-service components of the defendant’s business and the risk of injury in the area where the accident occurred.

The Appellate Division started its analysis by noting that there was nothing in the record that supported an inference that the plaintiff’s fall occurred in an area near where unsealed liquid goods were sold.  In fact, the pictures showing plaintiff on the floor after the fall had some bins containing dry goods nearby.  There was no evidence that the defendant supermarket dispensed liquid products in open containers, such as soda, coffee or other beverages for purchase anywhere in its store. 

The plaintiff argued that the necessary nexus was established because the fall occurred in close proximity to the supermarket’s checkout counters and points to a photograph on the record showing another customer with a case of bottled water loaded on the bottom of the shopping cart at checkout.  However, the Court noted that there was no evidence supporting an inference that those bottles were leaking or that any case of water bottles anywhere in the store was leaking.  The Appellate Division stated that “[i]t is not reasonable to infer that customers loaded leaking water bottles onto their shopping carts for purchase, or that unloaded cases of sealed water bottles at the checkout counter, if that occurred in this day where supermarkets scan prices of heavy items remotely, resulted in actual leaks.”

The Appellate Division distinguished this case from the Nisivoccia case, in which the mode of operation rule was applied because plaintiff slipped and fell on some loose grapes near the checkout lanes of a supermarket.  In Nisivoccia, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that a mode of operation charge is appropriate “when loose items that are reasonably likely to fall to the ground during customer or employee handling would create a dangerous condition.”  The Supreme Court reasoned that it was equally foreseeable that droppage and spillage would occur in a checkout area and, hence, found the mode of operation rule to be applicable.            

The Appellate Division in the within case noted “cases of bottled water are so qualitatively unlike loose grapes in open-topped bags as to render Nisivoccia inapposite.”  Hence, the Appellate Division affirmed the grant of summary judgment by the trial court, dismissing this case. 

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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.

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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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Avatar Mindy says:

    Awesome Blog! Thanks for sharing!

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