Supermarket Slip-and-Falls

This page on supermarket slip-and-falls is part of a series on slip-and-fall accidents by the Boston slip-and-fall lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.

Supermarkets are perhaps the most common location of slip-and-fall accidents. It is easy to see why. One, the breakage of shelved products often creates floor spills that cause injury to shoppers. Two, these locations often mop and wax their floors during business hours, causing patrons to slip on slick, freshly cleaned floors.

In Massachusetts, there is a specific legal standard that applies to slip-and-fall accidents in supermarkets. It is known as the “mode of operations test.” The “mode of operations” test for supermarket slip-and-falls was adopted by the Supreme Judicial Court in the 2007 case of Sheehan v. Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Inc.

Sheehan was an important victory for victims of supermarket slip-and-falls. Prior to Sheehan, in order for plaintiffs to win supermarket slip-and-fall cases, they had to prove either (a) that the supermarket placed the substance on the floor itself, (b) the supermarket had actual knowledge of the slippery substance on the floor and did not take reasonable steps to address it or (c) the slippery substance was on the floor for so long that the supermarket should have known of it. Oliveri v. Mass. Bay Transp. Auth., 363 Mass. 165 (1973).

This old and harsh rule made sense in its day. We tend to forget, but most old-fashioned grocery stores, like the A&P, operated like general stores in the Old West: goods were kept behind the counter and clerks gathered items for you, rather than you taking items off the shelf yourself. The modern large supermarket, where customers serve themselves, was so novel for its time that Queen Elizabeth asked to see one when she visited the United States in 1957.

It is easy to see why slip-and-falls are more likely to occur in a modern supermarket than the traditional grocery store. In a traditional grocery store, the owner is likely to know as soon as a spill occurs and the spill will likely be limited to areas where patrons don’t have access.

In a modern supermarket, however, it’s simply part of the business model that spills are going to occur all over the place and put customers at risk. Recognizing this change, many jurisdictions began to change the legal rules governing grocery store slip-and-falls, making it easier for customers to win lawsuits by no longer requiring that they prove the store’s knowledge of the spill. Bloom v. Fry’s Food Stores, Inc., 130 Ariz. 447 (1981); Moore v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 111 Cal. App. 4th 472, 476 (2003).

Massachusetts was a bit of a laggard in this movement but, in 2007, in the Sheehan case, the Supreme Judicial Court established a new rule: supermarket customers can win slip-and-fall lawsuits, “if a plaintiff proves that an unsafe condition on an owner’s premises exists that was reasonably foreseeable, resulting from an owner’s self-service business or mode of operation, and the plaintiff slips as a result of the unsafe condition [the plaintiff can win].” Sheehan, 448 Mass. at 791.

The new legal standard recognizes that it’s a virtually inevitable component of the supermarket model of customer self-service that spills will occur. The “mode of operation” of the modern supermarket makes those spills commonplace. And so while the old rule can be preserved for the old-fashioned store, a different rule should apply to the modern supermarket.

From an economic perspective, this makes perfect sense. The modern supermarket saves on labor costs by having the customers do the work for themselves that grocery clerks used to do. If supermarkets are going to profit by this new business model, they ought also to pay up when this business model generates entirely foreseeable injuries.

The concept of economic efficiency dictates that costs should be internalized, as well as profits. If I run a factory, I shouldn’t be able to pollute a river, to shift the costs of my business onto the general public by dumping into a river. I should have to privately bear the costs of the polluting chemicals generated by my business since I also privately reap the profits. Otherwise there’s no way of knowing whether my activity in running the factory produces benefits on net.

Since the Sheehan case, the mode of operations test has been expanded to other settings. For instance, in Sarkisian v. Concept Restaurants, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court applied to the mode of operations test to a nightclub setting. It stands to reason that in a crowded, dark nightclub where patrons are jostling about with drinks, the nature of the business is going to inevitably create spills on the floor.

Given that grocery stores are commercial establishments, slip-and-fall accidents in grocery stores may also implicate the powerful consumer protection law, Chapter 93A, which allows for triple damages. For more on Chapter 93A slip-and-falls, please visit our page on the subject.

Since the Sheehan case and other decisions, victims of slip-and-fall injuries have had a greater likelihood of prevailing on their claims and receiving damage awards. Of course, every slip-and-fall injury and case is different, so there is no way to predict what will happen in court until you are able to speak to an attorney and explain your situation. Therefore, if you believe that you have suffered an injury at a grocery store (or similar type of business or establishment), you should not hesitate to contact us for a free consultation. Your attorney will be able to tell you what your legal situation is and what your rights to recovery are under the law.

The Boston slip-and-fall lawyers at THE LAW OFFICE OF ALAN H. CREDE, P.C., hope you found this guide to supermarket slip-and-falls useful. However, you should not rely upon it as a legal opinion. The law changes quite often and the outcomes of many cases turn upon seemingly minor factual differences. If you have fallen in an accident in a supermarket, please contact a personal injury lawyer immediately.