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New Jersey Supreme Court Restricts the “Mode-of-Operation” Doctrine

New Jersey Supreme Court issues ruling restricting the “mode-of-operation” doctrine. However, full impact of the ruling is hotly debated by plaintiffs, defendants, and even retired Judges.

Generally, a proprietor's duty to his invitee is one of due care under all the circumstances. An invitee seeking to hold a business proprietor liable in negligence must prove, as an element of the cause of action, that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. Under the “mode-of-operation rule,” a business invitee who is injured is entitled to an inference of negligence and is relieved of the obligation to prove that the business owner had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. The Model Civil Jury Charge 5.20F is given when the plaintiff shows that the manner in which a business operates creates an inherent hazard.

In Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the “mode-of-operation” doctrine should be restricted to self-service areas of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. Specifically, the Court opined that the “mode-of-operation rule,” applies only to accidents occurring in areas affected by the business' self-service operations. The Court stated that a determination of whether an area of defendant’s business is considered to include self-service operations is made by a review the existence of a nexus between self-service components of the business and a risk of injury in the area where the accident occurred.

Lawyers on both sides of the New Jersey Bar appear divided on the true impact of the ruling. Plaintiff’s bar has interpreted the ruling as a limitation on the applicability of the doctrine to cases. Plaintiffs believe that they will now have to prove that a defendant had actual notice of a dangerous condition, an often difficult task; previously, plaintiffs often took a “shortcut” by arguing “mode-of-operation.”

Generally, lawyers representing defendants in premises liability cases agree. However, they point out that the jury charge continues to exist and plaintiffs will continue to argue that it should be charged to juries. Others, however, believe that the ruling actually expands the doctrine’s applicability to grocery stores and supermarkets, as plaintiff’s lawyers will likely argue that the entirety of such stores involves “self-service.”

Enough different interpretations of the new ruling exist to suggest however that the full impact of Prioleau may not be felt for years to come.

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