eNotes: Liability – April 2022 – New Jersey
April 01, 2022
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARY
NJ CASE SUMMARY
Jeter v. Sam’s Club
New Jersey Supreme Court
No. A-2-21 085880, ___ N.J. ___
Decided: March 17, 2022
The NJ Supreme Court holds the “mode of operation” rule inapplicable in a slip and fall case, where Plaintiff alleged grapes on the floor had caused her fall, because the Defendant store did not sell grapes other than in sealed packaging.
Plaintiff alleged that she suffered injuries after slipping on grapes in a store owned and operated by Defendant Sam’s Club. Defendant asserted the defense of lack of actual or constructive notice of the defective condition. Plaintiff countered by asserting the “mode of operation” rule, alleging that the Defendant’s mode of operation included the sale of grapes, which it knew or should have known could end up on the floor of the store.
Prior to trial, Defendant moved to bar Plaintiff from requesting a mode of operation jury instruction. Defendant contended that the mode of operation rule did not apply because it only sold grapes in sealed packages. Defendant argued that any loose grapes were caused by customers opening packages and thus liability could only attach if Defendant had actual or constructive notice of loose grapes on the floor. In response, Plaintiff argued that the issue was a question for the jury because Defendant knew that customers opened packages. The Trial Court sua sponte conducted a Rule 104(a) hearing, at which an assistant store manager acknowledged that Defendant knew customers occasionally opened grape packages, but viewed the practice as product tampering and discouraged it.
The Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, agreed with Defendant that the “mode of operation” rule did not apply; and, finding no evidence to show how long the offending grape had been on the floor, dismissed her complaint. The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed the Trial Court.
In a split decision (4-2), the NJ Supreme Court affirmed, agreeing that the “mode of operation” rule did not apply to the sale of grapes in closed clamshell containers. When an invitee is injured by a dangerous condition on a business owner’s premises, the owner is liable for such injuries if the owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition that caused the accident. The “mode of operation” rule is a judicially created rule that relieves a plaintiff of the burden of proving actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition in circumstances in which, as a matter of probability, a dangerous condition is likely to occur as the result of the nature of the business, the property’s condition, or a demonstrable pattern of conduct or incidents. Here the Supreme Court found that selling grapes only in closed containers does not create a reasonably foreseeable risk that grapes will fall to the ground in the process of ordinary customer handling.
Questions about this case can be directed to Mark Sander at (856) 334-0415 ext. 8915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.