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Law School Case Brief

Sheehan v. Roche Bros. Supermarkets - 448 Mass. 780, 863 N.E.2d 1276 (2007)


One variation to the traditional premises liability approach is called the mode of operation approach. This approach focuses on the nature of the defendant's business that gives rise to a substantial risk of injury to customers from slip and fall accidents. This approach also considers whether the plaintiff's injury was proximately caused by such an accident within the zone of risk. Under this approach, where an owner's chosen mode of operation makes it reasonably foreseeable that a dangerous condition will occur, a store owner may be held liable for injuries to an invitee if the plaintiff proves that the store owner failed to take all reasonable precautions necessary to protect invitees from these foreseeable dangerous conditions.


After the plaintiff slipped and fell on a grape in a grocery store owned by the defendant, Roche Brothers Supermarkets, Inc., he filed a complaint seeking damages for the injuries resulting from the defendant's alleged negligence. A Superior Court judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the defendant, pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 56 (c). In doing so, the judge applied the "traditional approach" to premises liability and ruled that the plaintiff could not establish that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition that caused the plaintiff to slip and fall. The plaintiff appealed, contending that the summary judgment was improperly granted. The plaintiff urged the higher court to follow a more modern trend and adopt a “mode of operation” approach to determine premises liability.


Was it proper to use the “traditional approach” to determine the premises liability of defendant?




The Court noted that a “mode of operation” approach to premises liability could make an owner liable only if it could have reasonably foreseen that a dangerous condition existed and failed to take adequate steps to forestall resulting injuries. Moreover, the Court noted that under the aforementioned approach, if a plaintiff proved that an unsafe condition on an owner's premises existed that was reasonably foreseeable, resulting from the owner's self-service business or mode of operation, and the plaintiff slipped as a result of the unsafe condition, the plaintiff satisfied the notice requirement. In the case at hand, the Court determined that it was proper to adopt a “mode of operation” approach than traditional approach to determine premises liability given the fact that he defendant had notice of the inherent risks associated with the operation of its self-service grocery store. According to the Court, fruit debris presented an obvious risk of injury, and a reasonably prudent person would not have allowed it to remain in a store’s aisle. The Court concluded that the trial court erred in granting the defendant summary judgment.

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