A case that is currently before the New Jersey Supreme Court—Prioleau v. KFC—may dramatically impact the mode-of-operation doctrine.
In Prioleau v. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc., 2014 N.J. Super. LEXIS 29 (App.Div. Mar. 3, 2014), the Appellate Division decided that it was an error for the trial court to charge the jury with the mode of operation rule and, accordingly, reversed and remanded the matter for a new trial.
Plaintiff Janice Prioleau entered a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on December 26, 2009. While on her way to the restroom, she slipped on a substance she described at trial as “water” or “grease.” Defendants objected to the inclusion of a mode-of-operation liability charge. The judge overruled the objection, finding defendants’ operated a fast-food operation and had not followed certain safety policies.
Mode-of-operation liability results when a plaintiff suffers injury because the mode or manner of the business operation creates a dangerous condition on the premises. The factual scenarios giving rise to mode-of-operation liability reflect business entities that allowed customers to assume tasks, making it reasonably foreseeable customer carelessness would create a dangerous condition. Thus, the business was on notice of the inherent risk created by its business practice, warranting an inference of negligence with a corresponding shift in the burden to the defendant-business to prove it acted with due care.
In a decision issued by the NJ appellate court, Prioleau’s initial verdict was thrown out. The appellate court agreed with KFC’s claims that the jury should not have applied the mode-of-operation doctrine. Instead, the court stated that this doctrine should only apply to businesses that encourage customer self-service and does not apply to a restaurant such as KFC.
Prioleau has appealed the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which will likely clarify the confusion regarding the applicability of New Jersey’s mode-of-operation doctrine.