In order for a business owner to be held liable for a dangerous condition on its property he or she ordinarily must have notice of the dangerous condition. In certain cases, negligence may be inferred.
One such category of cases in New Jersey includes those involving self-service counters. In those cases, the “Mode-of-Operation Rule” may apply. The rule allows a jury to infer negligence if the way in which a business owner conducts or operates the business routinely creates a dangerous condition. The inference is rebuttable, meaning that the opposing party may still produce evidence showing that it was not negligent under the circumstances.
The classic example is a supermarket vegetable aisle, where the supermarket would routinely be expected to find fruits and vegetables dropped on the floor creating a slipping hazard. In other words, the supermarket would always be on notice that the vegetable aisle potentially has a slippery floor and should take action such as conducting routine inspections and using floor mats.
A recent case, Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, tested the limit of the Mode-of-Operation Rule. The case involved a patron at KFC who slipped and fell on a wet and greasy floor on the way to the restroom. The managers and employees of KFC claimed that they regularly monitored customer areas and would mop up spills and excess water. One manager admitted that kitchen employees could possibly track cooking oil to customer areas when they used the restrooms.
Based on these facts, the trial court applied the Mode-of-Operation Rule to the case and KFC was found negligent by a jury at trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed and ordered a new trial because the Mode-of-Operation Rule should not have been applied. It explained that the rule only applies to situations where the customer serves himself, or directly engages with products unsupervised by an employee.
It ultimately found no evidence at the trial indicating that the location of the accident had even the slightest relationship to any self-service component of KFC’s business.
The ruling is significant as it will make clear that negligence may not be inferred simply because someone slips on a substance that is commonly found at a particular business. Plaintiff will still need to prove that the business knew about the spilled substance with enough time to take reasonable action.