A resident of Teaneck slips and falls at a restaurant and consults a personal injury lawyer two weeks later. The restaurant is located on Cedar Lane, not far from the victim’s home.
At the time of the accident, the victim stood in line at a self-service portion of the restaurant. She eyed the salad bar. The pasta salad appeared to be scrumptious.
Accordingly, she proceeded in the direction of that item. But she never made it. Halfway there, she slipped and fell on some lettuce that another patron spilled while in line. As a result, the Teaneck resident broke her wrist. She asks the personal injury lawyer whether she has a case.
This post is another in a series on recent changes to the instructions New Jersey judges provide to juries in personal injury cases.
PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER COUNSELS TEANECK VICTIM
The injury attorney first tells the victim that, normally, to get compensation, she must prove that the store knew about the hazard on the floor that hurt her, but still didn’t fix it. Or she must prove that the hazard was present for so long, that the restaurant should have known about it. Immediately, the victim interrupts:
“How can I possibly prove that the store knew that the lettuce was on the floor,” she asks. “And how can I possibly know how long it was there?”
The personal injury lawyer replies, “I can demand to see the store security video. Moreover, perhaps I can locate witnesses.”
“That’s good,” says our poor Teaneck victim, “but what if the store already destroyed any video. And what if you can’t find any witnesses. After all, the accident took place two weeks ago.”
“That’s why you should have called me right after the accident.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“Not to worry. Because this accident took place in the self-service area of a restaurant, you still may have a good case.”
“The law says that a business with a self-service food line can be held responsible for when patrons spill things on the floor, and, consequently, another patron gets hurt. In such a case, the victim doesn’t have to prove that the business knew, or should have known, about the hazard. In fact, at trial, the business is required to prove that it took adequate affirmative steps to ensure the safety of its self-service line. If the store can’t prove that, the injury victim wins. The law refers to this requirement as the ‘mode of operation’ doctrine.”
Our Teaneck victim breathes a deep sigh of relief. Even though she didn’t consult a personal injury lawyer promptly, she still has a fighting chance for compensation.
LIMITATIONS OF MODE OF OPERATION RULE
But not every slip and fall victim who delays contacting a personal injury attorney will be so lucky. With some possible exceptions, the mode of operation doctrine mainly applies to self-service areas. Had our Teaneck victim fallen elsewhere in the restaurant, her delay in contacting an attorney might have cost her the case. While the above story is fictional, the legal concepts that it discusses are very real.
The mode of operation rule appears in a recently revised New Jersey jury instruction.