Extending Mode of Operation Claim for Premises Liability Cases in Massachusetts

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) may present a new challenge for business owners, especially those who provide “self-service” options for their customers. In the recent case of Bowers vs. P. Wile’s, Inc., the court overturned a prior ruling that was in the Defendant’s favor, finding that the Plaintiff had sufficient grounds to hold the Defendant liable on the basis of the “mode of operation” rule. Read on to learn more about the case and it’s impact from our Boston personal injury lawyer.

Bowers vs. P. Wile’s Extended Mode of Operation Claim for Premises Liability Cases in Massachusetts

Case Summary

The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant was liable for injuries she suffered after tripping on a stone that had migrated from a gravel area near a “self-service” concrete walkway leading into an area of the store where landscaping items were displayed. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant knew that migration of stones from the gravel area created a risk for tripping on the walkway and had failed to take measures to avert the risk.

Counsel for the Defendant argued that under the premises liability laws, the Plaintiff had to prove that the Defendant had “constructive notice of the presence of stone on the walkway”, something the Plaintiff admittedly could not do because she did not know how the stone ended up on the walkway, nor how long it had been there when she tripped.

The Plaintiff’s Wakefield personal injury lawyer then argued that his client could prevail under the “mode of operation” rule and that he would establish that the Defendant knew that the stone was on the walkway because the Defendant used the self-service gravel area as part of daily business operations. Therefore, the Defendant knew that customers walking on the gravel area could dislodge stones onto the walkway. An employee of the Defendant testified that staff was required to check the walkway every 15 minutes for stones, due to concern that customers walking in and around the gravel area might dislodge stones onto the walkway.

The Superior Court concluded that the mode of operation rule did not apply to this case and granted the Defendant’s motion for a summary judgment. The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the ruling.

What is the Mode of Operation Rule and What Does It Mean for Business Owners?

The mode of operation rule absolves a plaintiff of the burden of proving that a business owner had actual or constructive notice of unsafe or hazardous conditions on his property, but the plaintiff must establish that a dangerous condition existed solely as a result of the business owner’s method of operating his business. In turn, the business owner must prove that he exercised due care in operating his business.

The mode of operation rule can be a pivotal arguing point because it is based on the premise that customers do not always exercise proper and safe conduct when they are in a self-service area of a business. A restaurant owner, for example, who offers a self-service buffet could be held legally liable by a Boston premises liability lawyer if a customer slips and falls on food that was dropped on the floor by another patron.

What Must a Plaintiff Prove?

A plaintiff must prove that:

  • A business owner was aware of, or would have discovered, a dangerous condition by exercising due care;
  • Said condition created an unreasonable risk of harm;
  • The business owner could not have expected the plaintiff to discover or protect him- or herself from the potential danger; and
  • The business owner neglected to exercise due care to protect the plaintiff.

Therefore, the Plaintiff, in this case, had to establish that:

  • There was a foreseeable risk of customers dislodging stones from the gravel area onto the walkway;
  • Stones on the walkway presented a foreseeable risk of tripping; and
  • Steps taken by the Defendant to prevent tripping and/or falling were unreasonable.

The Decision

The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the Defendant’s method of maintaining the gravel area was a mode of operation that created a foreseeable risk of customers dislodging stones onto the walkway and creating a potential for a trip and fall. Therefore, the Court ruled that “the judgment in favor of the Defendant is vacated and set aside, and the matter is remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” The Court also stated a jury would have to determine whether the Defendant’s efforts to avert the risk of tripping on stones by informal inspection of the walkway constituted a reasonable means to avert the danger of tripping on stones that migrated onto the walkway.

What’s the Bottom Line?

The mode of operation rule should be a strong incentive for business owners to be as proactive as necessary to maintain and provide a safe environment for their patrons. If you were injured in a place of business and think you may have a case to which the mode of operation rule applies, contact the Cambridge premises liability attorneys Law Office of John J. Sheehan to schedule a free consultation.

Real Stories From
Our Clients

Attorney Sheehan has been serving the needs of Boston-area residents since 1993. Our mission is to ensure complete client satisfaction and to obtain the maximum possible settlement or verdict for our clients.

Historias Reales de Nuestros Clientes

El abogado Sheehan ha atendido las necesidades de los residentes del área de Boston desde el 1993. Nuestra misión es garantizar la satisfacción de nuestros clientes y obtener el mejor acuerdo posible en sus casos.

"John Sheehan is a highly knoweldgable and all around amazing lawyer!" Si volvemos a necesitar un abogado para algo en el futuro, USTED será a quien llamemos.

I was injured at work in 2019 and John and his team made the process as simple as anyone could!! They took care of everything! The only thing I had to do is rest and go to doctor appointments! I would HIGHLY recommend anyone looking for an attorney to hire John Sheehan - if you would like a nice and easy process in a highly stressful situation and on top of it attorney Sheehan will get you the maximum of what your case is worth!

John Sheehan y su personal son muy amables, corteses, rápidos y explican todo a fondo. Hicieron un trabajo maravilloso para mi esposo y para mí y no podría recomendar un abogado más calificado. Hizo TODO lo que pudo por mi esposo y por mí a través de la compensación de trabajadores. He recomendado y continuaré recomendando a John a cualquiera de mis amistades que necesiten sus destrezas. Trabajo asombroso. John, Muchas gracias tanto de Al como de mí. No puedo agradecerte lo suficiente por hacer todo lo posible por nosotros. Cada vez que teníamos una pregunta, devolvía nuestras llamadas rápidamente. Esperamos no haberte vuelto loco. Si alguna vez necesitamos un abogado para algo, USTED será a quien llamemos. Muchas gracias de nuevo. ¡Gran trabajo! John, me gustaría darte las gracias aunque Judy ya lo hizo. Usted es el major y el personal de su oficina responden llamadas en seguida. Definitivamente lo recomendaremos a nuestros amigos si necesitan sus servicios. ¡Gracias nuevamente por un trabajo bien hecho!

- Jon P. (Google) Judy y Al Crowe
boston workers compensation lawyer 5.0/5.0
Boston Workers Comp Lawyer
Best Boston Car Accident Lawyers
Best Boston personal injury lawyer
boston car accident attorney
Best boston car accident attorney