Massachusetts Appellate Court Clarifies Liability for Slip and Fall Cases in Commercial Premises

Earlier this year, a Massachusetts Court of Appeal issued an opinion providing clarification for the State’s premises liability law. The court’s ruling can be viewed as a win for plaintiffs who suffer injuries as the result of unsafe conditions on a commercial property.

Back in 2007, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state, decided Sheehan v. Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Inc., 448 Mass. 780 (2007), in which the court used a rule known as the “mode of operation” doctrine to determine whether a plaintiff could recover against a storeowner for negligence in a premises liability case. This doctrine was more permissive in allowing plaintiffs to recover compensation.

In Sheehan, the plaintiff suffered injuries when she slipped and fell because a grape fell from a shelf in the store onto the pavement, which caused her to trip. The plaintiff alleged that the supermarket was negligent in maintenance of the display and failing to clean up any spills. Applying the mode of operation approach, the court held that a property owner such as the store does not need to know about a hazardous situation on the premises in order to be found negligent. Nor does the situation need to be something about which the property owner should have known. Instead, the plaintiff only needed to prove that the condition was tied to the owner’s mode of operation, which in this case was the self-service grape display.

According to the Sheehan court, the purpose of this approach is that the operator of a self-service display already has notice that the display poses a danger to consumers by the very nature of its operation. Since a self-service display poses a reasonable likelihood that risks will manifest, any harm that comes from these risks is foreseeable.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently added a clarification to Sheehan in Bowers v. P. Wile’s, Inc., No 14-P-313 (Mass. App. Ct. 2015). In this case, the plaintiff suffered injuries after stepping on a “river stone” that had been kicked onto the store’s sidewalk–a main area of consumer traffic–from a nearby section of gravel maintained by the store. The store displayed items for sale in the gravel area and surrounding locations, and customers were permitted to traverse the gravel area to view the items.

In an opinion reversing the trial court’s ruling, the appeals court concluded that an item that causes an injury to occur in a premises liability case does not need to be something that the store owner is offering for purchase in order for the mode of operation standard to apply. According to the court, the emphasis is whether the harm that occurred was a foreseeable result of the store’s self-service operation–not whether the item that created that risk was for sale.

If you or someone you know has suffered injuries in a slip and fall accident, you may be entitled to recovery. Navigating the legal system can be daunting, especially when you and your family are coping with severe injuries and medical expenses. The premises liability lawyers at The Law Offices of John S. Moffa have provided seasoned legal guidance to injury victims throughout Massachusetts and knows what it takes to present an aggressive and well-prepared case. Call us now at 1-866-476-0828 or contact us online to set up your free consultation today.

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