As New Jersey winter storms create icy conditions, business and residential property owners alike are prompted into action. Everyone understands that unattended snow and/or ice buildup can create a hazard. The same standard of care should also apply to indoor hazards. However, proving liability in a premises liability lawsuit can present its own unique set of litigation hazards.
In a recent example, the New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed the jury instructions given in a slip-and-fall case. The jury had awarded the plaintiff $138,000 for her claim of a dangerous condition outside the restroom of a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The plaintiff claimed that grease trails from the kitchen to the bathroom had caused her to fall and injure herself.
The trial court had explained the mode-of-operation rule to the jurors. The rule functions as an exemption on the plaintiff’s burden of proving that a business was aware of a hazardous condition. Generally, a plaintiff in a premises liability lawsuit must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a business had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition on its premises.
However, the exemption only applies to certain businesses, such as grocery stores, where customers handle some of the products or equipment. In those instances, the business is imputed with the knowledge that a dangerous condition might result from the customers’ interactions with its products. In this case, the KFC’s food is prepared out of the way of customers, so the state supreme court determined that the rule did not apply. Although the KFC is entitled to a new trial, it may still ultimately find itself liable to the injured customer. With an attorney’s help, such procedural run-arounds might be avoided in the first place.