The New Jersey Supreme Court recently declined an opportunity to expand the “mode of operation” doctrine in a case involving a slip and fall of a customer in a KFC outlet. It upheld the Appellate Division’s reversal of a $138,643 jury award against the restaurant, which it was alleged failed to maintain a wet floor on which the plaintiff fell on her way to the restroom.
Simply stated, the mode of operation doctrine eliminates the need for an injured customer to prove that the business knew of the unsafe condition causing the accident, when the condition is caused by the way that the business operates. The case establishing the doctrine involved a slip and fall on a loose string bean that had fallen on the floor in a grocery store which allowed customers to pick their produce from an open display. Since that time, the doctrine has mainly been applied to food or drinks spilled in a self service restaurant or supermarket.
In the case against KFC, the plaintiff claimed that she slipped on a mixture of water and grease on the floor on a rainy day. She was allowed to argue to the jury that this kind of hazard is inherent in the restaurant’s method of operation, so that it did not matter whether KFC actually knew about the floor condition. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that her injuries were unrelated to any self service component of KFC’s business.
While the mode of operation doctrine can serve as a useful shortcut in appropriate cases, it is crucial that any kind of accident be fully investigated as close to the time of occurrence as possible. This should include at a minimum photographing the scene and taking witness statements to bolster proof that the establishment had notice of the hazard.