Conn. Ruling Lowers Bar for Suits Against Self-Service Operations

March 26, 2007

The state Supreme Court has adopted a new legal rule making it easier for plaintiffs to sue businesses for negligence alleged in self-service operations.

Customers who are injured at a business previously had to demonstrate that the owner or operator was on notice that a hazard existed and failed to fix it. The new rule puts the burden on businesses to recognize the possibility of foreseeable hazards that they should take reasonable steps to address, according to the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling released last Friday.

The new rule accounts for the rise in self-service business in which customers — not just the business and its employees — have access to work areas.

“It’s a change in the law only because the law was stuck in the early 20th century instead of the 21st century,” said Steve Ecker, the lawyer for the plaintiff who was injured in a fall at a self-service salad bar at a Stop & Shop supermarket in Fairfield. “It used to be that Mr. Johnson would say, ‘Would you like some grapes?’ and he’d go select them out of a bin and hand you a bag. That no longer is what occurs.”

The court emphasized that an injured customer still has the burden of proving that the business owner failed to take adequate steps to safeguard the premises.

A spokesman for Stop & Shop refused to comment on Friday.

Maureen Kelly, a customer who slipped on a piece of lettuce at a Stop & Shop supermarket in November 1999, tore her rotator cuff and said she has since experienced chronic pain.

The store manager testified at trial in Fairfield Superior Court that the area at the salad bar was precarious, with customers often dropping food. Store policy required an attendant to be on duty at the salad bar and for a report to be filled out each time the area was swept, he said.

The accident report prepared by the store in connection with Kelly’s fall was completed nearly a month later with no report of sweeping.

Kelly lost her negligence case at the trial, failing to persuade the judge to adopt a rule that a business have advance notice of a hazardous condition. Under the previous rule, Kelly would been required to prove that the store knew there was lettuce on the floor and neglected to remove it reasonably quickly.

Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer said in the decision that self-service operations have the potential to create hazards caused not only by an oversight by employees of the business, but by customers.

“Because self-service businesses are likely to achieve savings by virtue of their method of operation, it is appropriate to hold them responsible for injuries to customers that are a foreseeable consequence of their use of that merchandising approach unless they take reasonable precautions to prevent such injuries,” he wrote.

Justice Peter Zarella and Appellate Judge Ian McLachlan, who was brought into the case, wrote separately that a new rule of premise liability should not cover all self-service operations, but only those that are improperly designed or operated.


Information from: The Hartford Courant,

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