We have all spent some time in a store with fragile merchandise. In all likelihood, your first excursion into such a store, like most, was when you were a child.
Those early visits in your youth exposed you to the age-old expression, “You break it; you buy it.” It likely came from your parents whenever they took you into a store with anything fragile, so you would be less tempted to touch these products.
This early exposure to the “you break it, you buy it” rule has probably affected your conduct in stores to the present day. After all, no one wants to pay for something they do not wish to, especially in times of financial uncertainty.
However, there is a question that some might not have considered, but more than a few wish they did. Whether or not “You break it, you buy it” is actually allowed by law?
The phrase” you break it, you buy it” is one of the most well-known retail sayings in the retail store world. However, not many people stop to question whether a store can legally enforce the policy or if it is more of a rule of courtesy.
The concept that any merchandise we break in a store will render the broken item unsellable is reason alone to be careful while perusing a store. It’s not a new idea and is something we readily accept. However, store policy about broken items and what laws are enforceable are two entirely different things.
This article will clarify whether a store can legally hold you accountable for broken merchandise and force you to pay its full price.
Where Did the “You break it, you buy it” Rule Originate?
It might seem like the rule retailers often cite appeared out of thin air. However, the rule does have an origin story before turning into one of the most quoted phrases in the retail world.
The original phrase was “If you break it, you’ve bought it,” and the 1st reported use of the saying occurred in 1952 at a gift shop in Miami. They printed the phrase on labels for their fragile souvenirs.
They did so to protect their merchandise from being mishandled by customers. The threat of being charged for broken merchandise is enough to dissuade most people from being careless and touching something they don’t wish to purchase.
Since then, the phrase has become a staple for countless retailers of fragile merchandise. The saying is so common that it has been erroneously linked to a chain of upscale furniture stores in the United States known as Pottery Barn.
While the phrase has been commonly referred to as the “Pottery Barn rule,” the chain does not espouse the principle. Instead, when a customer causes damage to merchandise, the broken items are typically written off as a loss instead of financially held against the customer.
The “Pottery Barn Rule”
In some cases, expensive merchandise could become an insurance company matter for the store owner, and the deductible would come out of their pocket. In any case, the term “Pottery Barn rule” is something of a misnomer.
There was also a slight political issue with the phrase in the early 21st century (Secretary of State Colin Powell used it in his stance on the Iraq war, as seen in The New York Times), but that has little to do with the enforcement of the alleged policy.
We doubt that the small Florida gift shop expected its simple warning sign to grow in popularity nearly as much as it has. Or even to have Powell’s version of “You break it, you buy it” referenced by John Kerry during the 2004 election’s first presidential debate.
However, the “you break it, you buy it” phrase has managed to spread across the country and piggyback off the reputation of a top US furniture store that does not even use it.
While it is a commonly cited phrase and is often associated with many stores, the enforceability of the saying remains questionable, which brings us to the question that brought you here today:
Can “You break it, you buy it” Signs Be Legally Enforced?
No store owner likes winding up with damaged items that they aren’t able to sell. It cuts into their profits, and that tends to make them a little displeased. Not only do they not make money on the item, but they also lose the money they spent on it in the first place to be able to put it on their store shelves.
So, when a shopkeeper cites the “you break it, you buy it” rule, you might be concerned that they can force you to pay up. The problem with the situation is that enforcing a unilateral contract as vague as the Pottery Barn rule requires more evidence than simply proving who broke the product.
At best, the Pottery Barn rule’s status as a contract requires a mutual agreement from both parties to enforce. Therefore, the only way for any retailer to seek reparations from a customer is to pursue legal action against them for the full retail price.
Even then, there are specific criteria that the customer must meet before a store owner can act against you. Shop owners cannot legally detain you over a broken item.
Shopkeeper’s Privilege Does Not Apply
Breaking the “you break it, you buy it” rule is not a crime like shoplifting. So Shopkeeper’s privilege does not apply. Meaning, that if a store owner or employee detains you, that can be criminal behavior, giving you a reason to press charges and sue the store’s owner for keeping you prisoner as there was no suspicion of shoplifting.
Store Owners Must Prove in “You Break It, You Buy It” Cases:
- Prove that the damage to the property was intentional or a result of the customer’s gross negligence.
- Prove that you were fully aware that the store put the “Pottery Barn rule” in effect, which is pretty difficult to prove unless you were informed by an employee the moment you set foot in the establishment.
Since grocery stores and shops cannot detain you when you break or damage a product, they cannot force you to pay then and there. They must go through the proper legal channels.
They always have the right to call the police, but in all likelihood, the police will encourage them to calm down rather than come and arrest you for mistakenly damaging an item in a gift shop. That is not a crime. A store owner detaining or assaulting you unprovoked could be, however.
When it comes to store owners who are looking to recover financially from damaged merchandise, they will generally have to pursue a civil claim against you. For these claims to be successful, they must prove that the damage you caused to their merchandise was either of malicious intent or negligence and not the result of a simple accident.
Shop owners may also have to prove that you, the defendant, read and understood the “the break it, you buy it” agreement.” Before we go into discussing that further, we need to get an overview understanding of how civil claims can work in these situations.
The one factor to remember is that even if the retail store owner has a low chance of winning a lawsuit, they can sue you in a civil claim to recover the financial damages caused by the breakage of their store’s merchandise.
The more notably upscale store, the higher the chance this would a civil lawsuit could come to pass. Understanding how these civil claims work is crucial to protecting your finances and well-being.
What is a Civil Claim?
There are several types of litigation, but civil lawsuits are easily one of the most common. While personal injury claims are one of the most common civil suits, property damage is an equally common form of law. When merchandise sold in a store is damaged, civil lawsuits are often employed when the store owner wants compensation for the lost product.
While civil torts differ radically from criminal suits, one of the advantages they offer to the plaintiff is that the burden of proof is far lighter than in a criminal case. After all, we’re talking about accidentally broken property, not vandalism.
While a criminal case requires proof that shows guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil claim only requires a “preponderance of evidence.” “preponderance of evidence” is a technical, legal term used in determining burden of proof.
This means the evidence only has to show that it is highly likely that the defendant is liable or guilty, which fulfills the burden of proof. This can usually make it easier for you not to be liable for the accusations levied against you in civil court.
However, when the claim is about damaged merchandise, the situation is a little more complicated to prove for the owner of a gift shop or store, which is in your favor as the customer.
As we mentioned, claims over damaged merchandise must typically result from malicious or negligent damage. The former is self-explanatory since the malicious destruction of property is illegal. Seeking to destroy someone else’s livelihood is justification for a civil suit, and a criminal claim can occasionally accompany such cases.
While a criminal lawsuit for malicious destruction of property requires significant financial losses to justify, negligent destruction of merchandise is another matter entirely.
Negligent Damage to Merchandise is Not a Crime
Negligent damage of merchandise means that you did not intend to damage the product but were careless. While negligence is less a crime and more an error, it may still be sufficient to justify store owners seeking compensation for their lost merchandise.
Negligence is a term commonly used in personal injury cases; for example, to refer to a driver who was not paying attention and struck another vehicle or a business owner who allowed conditions to become unsafe and cause injuries to a patron.
When negligent actions are responsible for damaging merchandise in a store, it could be because you were playing with the product or holding it precariously.
While negligent and malicious destruction of merchandise can result in a civil claim being filed against you, there is still a catch. When inventory is damaged like this, it gives the store owner cause to seek compensation. However, negligent damage is less severe than other types of damage if no one is injured.
Unfortunately, it remains viable for a civil claim if the store owner insists on compensation for their losses.
Stores Must Prove You Were Aware of Sign
The biggest problem with the Pottery Barn rule is that you need to be aware that the rule is in effect in the store – ignorance of such a policy might be able to protect you from its conditions when damaged merchandise is involved.
The Pottery Barn rule is a weak form of contract that few retailers genuinely employ against their shoppers. To pursue a civil claim on the grounds of damaged merchandise, the store owner must prove you were aware that they use the Pottery Barn rule.
Proving awareness of a rule can be extremely difficult since, as previously mentioned, they would need to make the rule painfully apparent to every customer who walks in. If it is written in small print on a shelf in the back of the store, it can be challenging to prove that you ever saw it.
If they cannot prove that you not only saw the sign or notification but accepted the terms of the “contract,” they will likely have no success pursuing a claim against you.
If they can launch a civil claim against you and the court finds that the disclaimer is not a contract or you were not negligent, their lawsuit will likely fail.
Very few courts even entertain the Pottery Barn rule in the first place, especially if you were a good customer and the mistake could have happened to anybody.
However, this does not give you the right to run rampant like a bull in a china shop in a store with fragile merchandise. All Americans share a legal duty that should keep you on your best behavior in private places of business.
Legal Duty of Due Care
While the odds of a civil claim over damaged merchandise are slim, it does not give you a license to rampage through a store without care. Every American citizen is bound to a legal duty of due care, a concept that protects shop owners, citizens, and the rest of the population from those who brazenly engage in reckless behavior.
You are expected to conduct yourself reasonably to prevent unnecessary damage or harm. The legal duty of care means exercising reasonable care to avoid injuring others or damaging property.
Exercising your duty of due care in a shop is a simple matter. Failure to adhere to this and violating your duty of care makes the difference between negligence and malicious intent.
If the store owner suing you cannot prove that you were not exercising your duty of due care, there is little they can do to prove your guilt.
The best example would be ensuring that you handle any merchandise with both hands and return it to its proper place when you are finished examining it.
For example, your liability could be very low or non-existent if:
- The product is slippery, and most people would have trouble holding onto it.
- The product has moving or removable parts that can easily come off while handling these fragile items.
- The product is placed near a high-traffic walkway where patrons can bump into it and knock it over.
- The product is already damaged in a way that causes it to fall from your grasp.
- The product is extremely expensive and is left in the open without any cautionary signs next to it.
- The product is extremely fragile and isn’t locked inside of a display case.
If you exercise your legal duty of care, there is a low probability of a store owner being able to sue you over the lost merchandise successfully. However, this does not mean they will not be able to try, and the outcome of each case depends on the circumstances of the breakage.
In these situations, an unsuccessful claim may still cause you some financial trouble if they decide to bring you to court.
The “You break it, you bought it” Rule is Not a Law
The “you break it, you buy it” rule might have been around for nearly a century, but it is not legally binding. A store owner can sue you for compensation over a destroyed or damaged product. However, they cannot detain you and force you to pay on the spot.
If they do not have grounds for a lawsuit, the worst they can do is attempt to bar you from their establishment.
These consequences are pretty rare and unlikely to present an issue in modern society. That said, if you do find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit, you will need to find a lawyer for legal advice for your case.
Pro Bono Lawyers Can Defend You in Civil Lawsuits
When it comes to being the defendant if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer for a “you break it, you buy it” case, you may want to look for pro bono options, which means a lawyer will let you retain them to represent you for free.
At Express Legal Funding, we do not provide commercial litigation funding. That is when a company pays for the cost of the lawsuit itself, which means the case expenses.
Still, those litigation finance companies can only back the plaintiff, as plaintiffs sue for money and expect a payout at the end of their case. Similarly, we at Express Legal Funding can only advance money to plaintiffs in exchange for a portion of their potential case proceeds.
The big difference is that the clients we underwrite cash with a lien on their case can only use the pre-settlement funding for personal expenses and not pay for their case took place itself.
So we, like every other lawsuit funding company, cannot, from a practical perspective, enter legal funding agreements with defendants as they are not the ones suing and do not expect to win money in a court verdict or reach a settlement.
However, if you are a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit such as a car accident case and you and your lawyer are suing for injuries and damages, you qualify to apply for pre-settlement funding on your case.
Going to court and fighting a local store or big company that blames you for negligence can leave you feeling a whole mix of emotions—anything from embarrassment to frustration and everything in between.
Only compounded by you know it was not your fault as the store’s shortcoming caused the breakage. For example, they precariously placed the item you broke in the store.
Sue the Store for False Imprisonment
However, in these situations, depending on your case’s details, there may be ways to secure a settlement court verdict in your favor in a separate suit.
Probably one of the more straightforward paths to your suing the store or establishment is if they illegally detained you at the store after you broke the item. This is because false imprisonment is a crime, and that is what they did by making you stay there until you paid for it.
Like many people getting sued, you may think you can sue them for defamation because what they accuse you of is untrue.
However, defamation is very hard to prove regarding ongoing and past civil and criminal lawsuits. If you can’t prove you were financially harmed by the owner falsely suing you for not following the “you break it, you buy it” rule, your chances will become much lower. You could only get non-economic damages; not every state even allows for that.
Plus, for you to receive non-economic damages, it would likely need to be a fabricated story, not an exaggeration of the truth. Meaning you had never been in the store in the first place.
Don’t despair! As we mentioned, earlier civil lawsuits are one of the most common case types. So if you find yourself in a civil lawsuit and have already hired an attorney on a contingency fee basis but need money now and not just later when your case ends, you can call or apply with us 24/7.
Learn more from the top experts in the best legal funding industry for more info on what is the best and most affordable option for you.
About the Author
Aaron Winston is the Strategy Director of Express Legal Funding. As "The Legal Funding Expert," Aaron has more than ten years of experience in the consumer finance industry. Most of which was as a consultant to a top financial advisory firm, managing 400+ million USD in client wealth. He is recognized as an expert author and researcher across multiple SEO industries.
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