Oct 31 2017

Rhode Island Supreme Court Declines to Adopt “Mode of Operation” Approach

Many states, including Massachusetts, recognize a so-called “mode of operation” theory in premises liability cases.  The mode of operation approach relieves a plaintiff from having to prove that the defendant knew or should have known of an unsafe condition prior to the plaintiff’s accident.  Rather, the plaintiff need only show that the plaintiff’s injury was attributable to a reasonably foreseeable dangerous condition on the owner’s premises that is related to the owner’s self-service mode of operation. 

This theory has not been recognized in Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court declined to accept the theory in a case before it earlier this year.  In Bates-Bridgmon v. Heong’s Market, Inc, 152 A.3d 1137 (R.I. 2017), a customer slipped and fell on a cucumber and an oily substance near a salad bar in a grocery store.  The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s self-service mode of operation made it reasonably foreseeable that a dangerous condition will occur such that the store could be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.  The defendant argued that there was no evidence of actual or constructive notice to the store giving it a reasonable time to clean it up before the plaintiff’s fall. The defendant also argued that the mode of operation theory was not the law in Rhode Island.  At trial, the judge did not instruct the jury on the mode of operation theory.  The jury reached a verdict for the defendant.  The plaintiff moved for a new trial, which was denied.

The plaintiff appealed the trial judge’s denial of his motion for new trial and argued that the trial justice erred by declining to instruct the jury on the mode of operation theory.  The plaintiff also requested that the Rhode Island Supreme Court adopt the mode of operation theory.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s request on grounds that the plaintiff failed to properly raise the issue in the lower court.  The Court’s holding on procedural grounds did not explicitly reject the mode of operation approach and effectively left the door open for future appeals.  However, the present law in Rhode Island remains that a plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew or should have known of the unsafe condition prior to the plaintiff’s incident.

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