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Mode of Operation Potentially Creates New Theory of Liability Against Retailers for Premises Liability

This article will address the use of "mode of operation" theory in so-called negligent stacking cases against retailers for premises liability. Adding mode of operation analysis into the mix creates new considerations for retailers in defense of cases of falling merchandise. While many courts look solely to the method of stacking standing on its own in making this determination, some have introduced the concept of mode of operation into the analysis. By introducing this consideration, courts invite inquiry into the reasonably foreseeable interference of customers. Being on the lookout for this issue is important early in the pleading process as well as during the presentation of evidence at trial.

Typically, in premises liability cases, including those involving falling merchandise, a retailer is not the insurer of the safety of its customers. See, e.g. Garvin v. Bi-Lo, Inc., 343 S.C. 625 (2001); Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693 (1973); Meek v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 72 Conn. App. 467, 806 A.2d 546 (2002). However, a plaintiff may recover if she can show that the manner of stacking a shelf was dangerous. "The merchant must use reasonable care in placing goods on the store shelves. Merchandise must not be stacked or placed at such heights, widths, depths, or in such locations which would make it susceptible to falling." See e.g. Pullia v. Builders Square, Inc., 265 Ill.App.3d 933, 937, appeal denied, 158 Ill.2d 565, 645 N.E.2d 1368 (1994); Dougherty v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 221 Pa.Super. 221, 289 A.2d 747 (1972). The jury also may consider the method of stacking, the presence or absence of lateral support, and the stacked item's dimensions and center of gravity. Meek v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 72 Conn. App. 467 (2002); Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Sholl, 990 S.W.2d 412 (Tex. App. 1999); Fleming v. Wal-Mart, Inc., 268 Ark. 241 (1980).

These cases, relying on a simple formulation of negligent stacking present clear areas for the defense to emphasize. Any deficiency in the plaintiff's presentation as to orientation, heights, and weights must be highlighted for the finder of fact. Unless the case is brought in a jurisdiction that sanctions res ipsa loquitur liability in these situations, the plaintiff cannot simply rely on the occurrence of the accident to support a case. In addition to highlighting deficiencies in the plaintiff's case, the defense may also benefit from the right expert. Testimony from a structural engineer or other qualified expert to affirmatively establish the stability of the retailer's chosen display and compliance with industry standards.

In some jurisdictions, courts have employed a mode of operation analysis to allow a plaintiff to establish liability for falling merchandise. For example, in Meek v. Walmart, 72 Conn. App. 467, 806 A.2d 546 (2002), the Connecticut Appellate Court held that "the store's mode of operation may be taken into account by the fact finder when it considers whether the method of display was unsafe." Consequently, "one of the factors to be considered in establishing and maintaining a display in a department store is that the merchandise is going to be inspected by the customers." This ruling extended the mode of operation analysis to Connecticut in line with the more than twenty other states. See Kelly v. Stop and Shop, Inc., 281 Conn. 768 (2007).

Adding mode of operation analysis into the mix creates new considerations for retailers in defense of cases of falling merchandise. Although the jurisdictions that allow mode of operation liability employ different tests, generally speaking, there needs to be a business model that encourages customers to handle merchandise making a "particular resultant hazard readily foreseeable." See e.g. Fisher v. Big Y Foods, Inc., 298 Conn. 414, 428, 3 A.3d 919, 928 (2010). Such modes of operation typically concern a particular method of operation within the self-service context, rather than the self-service model itself. See Jasko v. F.W. Woolworth Co., supra, 177 Colo. at 420, 494 P.2d 839 ("defendant's method of selling pizza" created dangerous condition); Gump v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., supra, 93 Hawai'i at 418, 5 P.3d 407 (specifically limiting application of rule to circumstances of case, i.e., when "a commercial establishment, because of its mode of operation, has knowingly allowed the consumption of ready-to-eat food within its general shopping area"). The fact that customers are allowed to select merchandise off of a shelf typically will not satisfy a mode of operation analysis. See e.g. Fisher v. Big Y Foods, Inc., 298 Conn. 414, 428, 3 A.3d 919, 928 (2010).

Therefore, when confronted with a claim of mode of operation case for falling merchandise, the defense should initially consider a motion to contest the sufficiency of the allegation if the mode of operation alleged is merely that customers are allowed to select and carry away their own merchandise. Without identifying a specific practice within a self-service context, the plaintiff's allegation may be legally insufficient.

If unable to dispense of such an allegation through a pre-trial motion, it will be incumbent upon the defense to present evidence at trial negating the mode of operation claim. A well-prepared defense witness on compliance with internal standards and practices showing proper stacking methods and inspections will go a long way towards a successful defense. Further, evidence showing lack of injury from the merchandise display method at issue will bolster the defense. This can be done through presenting evidence as to industry practice as well as demonstrating an absence of regularly occurring falling merchandise. Retailers can best achieve this by regularly documenting any claims and having in place a system for monitoring such accidents. By showing that the practice at question was not peculiar to a particular aspect of the retailer's operation or that the hazard was not so regularly occurring as to be foreseeable, a defendant should be able to avoid liability.

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