Break it and buy it rules leave (ample) room for interpretation

It’s happened to the best of us.  We’re eyeing a ceramic bowl when it slips from our hands and shatters to the floor.  Or we grab a bottle of jelly from the grocery shelf just a tad too quickly and watch as three surrounding bottles come with it. 

In all situations, one question remains: who will pay for the broken merchandise.  The law doesn’t necessarily provide any definitive answers, but it does provide some interesting theories which store owners may pursue.

One of those theories falls under tort law, meaning negligence.  This theory focuses on “reasonable duty of care” and suggests that the customers in a store owe the store owner a duty not to ruin the merchandise.

That means that if a customer broke something and the store owner could show that the customer did not show reasonable care (e.g., the customer ran down the aisles with her arms spread wide knocking off merchandise), the customer would be obligated to pay for the items.  On the other hand, if a customer is examining a vase, places it back on the shelf and moments later it falls and breaks, it may have been due to faulty shelving rather than a potential buyer’s carelessness.  In that case, it would come down to which party really was negligent: which party caused the damage.

Another legal theory store owners can use to force customers to pay is found in contract law.  Contracts traditionally require “offer and acceptance” and “consideration” (or value) for that contract.  They may also include forbearance, a promise not to do something.

The idea under this theory is that store owners can post a sign warning customers that if they break something they will be required to buy it and that the sign serves as a unilateral, or one-sided, contract.  The customer then, by entering the store, accepts the contract (thus satisfying offer and acceptance).  Should the customer break something, he or she would be required to provide consideration, i.e., money.

That poses another question: how much must the customer pay.  If a contract is broken, contract law typically seeks to put the wronged party back in the position they were in prior to entering the contract.  So if you go into a store and break something with a retail price of $400, but the item only cost the store owner $250, that leaves some question about how much the customer owes the owner.  It may be $250 because that’s the amount the owner is out.  Or it may be $400 (or something in between) once you factor in anticipated profits.

If you break something — and it’s clear it was your fault — the shop owner probably cannot stop you from leaving the store.  But he may call upon a shopkeeper’s rule that allows him to hold someone for a reasonable amount of time, usually about 15 minutes, to determine whether the person shoplifted.  That may give him time to get police officers on the scene.

Of course, store owners may also sue people who break or ruin merchandise.  It’s probably not worth it for items under $100 when you consider that small claims court filing fees are close to that amount.  But for more expensive items, like electronics, it may be worth it for owners to pursue a lawsuit.

In any case, despite the murky rules, it’s probably best for everyone to exercise special care with other people’s things.

For more information on consumer law, contact us at 608-784-5678.


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