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“You Break It, You Buy It” and the Law

Retail stores often post “you break it, you buy it” signs on the wall, but are they legally enforceable?

By
Adam Freedman
September 30, 2011

“You Break It, You Buy It” and the Law

 

Today’s topic: You break it, you buy it.

Matthew asks, if a business posts one of those signs saying “you break it, you buy it,” then “are you legally obligated to buy something because you broke it.”

Are “You Break It, You Buy It” Signs Legally Enforceable?

A fine question. The short answer is: no, the store sign by itself doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to buy any item that you break. Your liability to the store will depend on the circumstances of the breakage, as well as the law in your state.  Of course, the best policy is not to break things in the first place.

Before I go any further, I’m happy to tell you that this episode is sponsored by Go To Meeting. You can save time and money by hosting meetings online. Go To Meeting is the easiest, most secure way to hold an online meeting. Everyone attending simply logs on to GoToMeeting.com and then they can see whatever is on your desk top on their computer screen. Walk people through a power point deck or a product demonstration. The service also includes phone and voice over IP conferencing. Legal Lad listeners can try Go To Meeting free for 45 days, that’s more than $50 in savings, by going to GoToMeeting.com/podcast and signing up for a free trial. Again, visit GoToMeeting.com/podcast and sign up for a free trial.

Back to the issue.

The Legality of the “You Break It, You Buy It” Signs

Maybe this will ring a bell. You’re browsing in some fancy retail store. You admire all the nice, shiny things until you’re finally inspired to pick something up and hold it in your hands. You look up and there it is: the ominous “you break it, you buy it” sign. The panic hits you: did you break it already? Are you holding it the wrong way? You put the item back on the shelf as gingerly as possible and continue strolling down the aisle, whistling a nervous tune.

Well, maybe that’s just me. But countless retail stores do have these signs declaring what is popularly known as the “Pottery Barn Rule,” even though that particular retailer has no such rule, according to published reports. Despite the widespread use of these signs, I don’t consider them an entirely accurate statement of the law.

There’s No “You Break It, You Buy It” Law

First, there’s no statute on the books declaring “you break it, you buy it” to be the law of the land. At least not in the United States, and I’m not aware of any other country with such a law. Without a statute, the signs could only be enforceable under common law doctrines of either contract or tort.

Do Signs Create a “Unilateral Contract”?

Some people argue that the “you break it” signs create a contract with every customer who enters the store. But it is often difficult to prove the validity of so-called “unilateral contracts”--that is, contracts proposed by one party without explicit agreement by the other party. The conduct on the part of the accepting party has to be an unequivocal acceptance of the terms proposed. 

It seems very unlikely that a court would agree that when a customer enters a store he or she implicitly agrees to every proposition posted on the store walls. What if the store posted a sign saying “You Look At It, You Buy It?”  Would a court enforce that as a valid contract?  I doubt it; otherwise a lot more people would go into retail. 

And besides, a valid contract has to be based on some exchange of value--what the law calls “consideration,” and it’s hard to find any consideration coming from the store in return for the “you break it, you buy it” agreement.   

If You Break It, Do You Have to Buy It?

If you accidentally break something in a store, you may be liable under the law of negligence

But this is not to say that you can go ahead and do your bull-in-a-china-shop routine with impunity. If you accidentally break something in a store, the question of whether and how much you owe the store will be determined by the law of negligence, which, like contract law, differs from state to state, and country to country.  

Generally, under negligence law, the key question is whether you acted carelessly in a situation where the law assumes that you had a duty to act carefully. Most courts in the US would hold that a store customer has a duty to take care not to cause damage that is “reasonably foreseeable.” Courts in Canada, Britain, and other common law countries follow similar rules. So, if you can’t resist the urge to juggle those priceless Faberge eggs in the antiques store, you’re probably violating your duty of care.  And if the eggs break, a court would likely hold you liable for damages.

The “You Break It” Signs Jump to Conclusions

Essentially, the “you break it” signs are a short hand way for a store to assert two legal conclusions relating to the law of negligence:

(1) if you break something, it must be entirely due to your negligence; and
(2) your legal liability is the full purchase price of the item. 

But those two conclusions are not necessarily true. The store itself might have been negligent by failing to take reasonable steps to prevent breakage--maybe they placed their goods in a precarious position, or they left tripping hazards on the floor.  Under a doctrine known as “comparative negligence,” a court might apportion liability between the customer and the store according to their respective degrees of fault.  

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If You Break It, Do You Have to Pay the Full Price?

And even if the customer is 100 percent at fault, it’s far from certain that a court would require him or her to pay the full retail price of the item. In negligence cases, courts generally attempt to put the victim in the position he or she was in just before the accident. In other words, the customer might have to reimburse the store for its cost to re-stock the broken item, but that would usually be the wholesale, not the retail price. It is possible, however, that for a rare or irreplaceable item, the customer could be on the hook for more, but it would depend on the circumstances of the breakage and the law of the state where the accident took place.

By now, you might be looking forward to having a spirited debate with a store owner regarding the enforceability of their “you break it, you buy it” signs. But when you think about it, isn’t it better to avoid the issue altogether?  Just be really careful when browsing, and consider asking the sales assistant to get that nice piece of china off the shelf for you.

Thank you for reading Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. Thanks again to our sponsor this week, Go To Meeting. Visit Go To Meeting.com/podcast and sign up for a free 45 day trial of their online conferencing service. That’s GotoMeeting.com/podcast for a free 45 day trial.

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Broken Flowerpot image from Shutterstock

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