Shop owners and other businesses owe a duty to their customers to keep the store safe from dangers. If they do not maintain the premises as required by statute and case law, they can be held liable for the injuries suffered as a result of their failure. In Bowers v. Wile’s, Inc. (14-P-313), the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed a lower court’s decision based on its interpretation of the “mode of operation” approach in premises liability cases. This approach was developed in a Supreme Judicial Court decision in Sheehan v. Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Inc., 448 Mass. 780, 788 (2007). In this case, the court eased the burden placed on the injured person to show that the owner had actual or constructive notice of the unsafe condition on the premises. For example, if a glass jar containing liquid spilled in a grocery store, the injured party who slipped and fell on the item would have to show the grocery store managers were aware, or should have been aware, of the mess.
After Sheehan, an injured party only needs to show that the dangerous condition was “related to the owner’s self-service mode of operation.” The trial court granted the defendant store’s motion for summary judgment based on the view that the “mode of operation” approach only applies when the dangerous condition results from the breakage or spillage of items offered for sale. In this case, the injured woman was walking to a store on a clear day with no rain or snow and fell over a “river stone” that had been moved from the gravel area maintained by the store to the sidewalk. The injured woman had not seen or noticed any stones prior to her fall, and she suffered a displaced fracture on her hip that required two surgeries to repair.
The store’s gravel area was often used to display merchandise that is available for sale. This area was open to the customers. The injured woman previously shopped at the store and had navigated around the stones in the gravel area without any prior problems. The gravel stones were supposed to be in this area, but they had often moved through customer traffic to the sidewalk. Employees of the store, as they were assisting customers, would often kick the stones back to the gravel area, but there was no formal inspection or clean-up for this purpose.
The Appeals Court, in its analysis in the present case, looked to the Superior Court’s point in Sheehan that the burden to prove notice was not eliminated. The injured party can recover damages if the injury originated from a reasonably foreseeable dangerous condition. The court looked at the reasoning that if a store uses a “self-service” approach in the sale of its items, it is foreseeable that the customer could mishandle the product and create risks to other customers. The court felt that it did not matter whether the injured party suffered a fall due to something “breaking and spilling,” as in Sheehan. The court found for the injured woman and reversed the summary judgment, remanding the case back to the trial court, allowing the woman to continue her pursuit of damages.
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Appeals Court of Massachusetts Reviews Slip and Fall on Ice at Hospital, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, April 28, 2015
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Jury Award to Injured Child Harmed from Overdose of Motrin, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, April 21, 2015