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Imagine one is browsing items in the aisles of a grocery store and drops one of them accidentally on the floor so it breaks.

Must any grocery store would generally write it off and tell a customer not to worry about an innocent mistake. Of course if you dropped it after checking out and processing it you don’t get to swap it for a new one and it is the customer’s loss.

But what is the legal position here? (Criminal implications? Civil matter only?) If the store wishes to pursue you for leaving without paying with the only recourse be to sue you for the value in civil court? What if you don’t cooperate to give an address for service? Can you be compelled or are they SoL?

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  • It's not uncommon for shops to have notices such as "all breakages must be paid for" or "you break; you own it (after you've paid for it)". One might assume these notices create a condition of entry.
    – user35069
    Mar 15, 2023 at 21:42
  • Okay but what implications do the notices create then? Civil? Criminal? Mar 15, 2023 at 22:07

2 Answers 2

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One analysis is in Bow Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd. v. Murray, 2006 ABPC 366, by Judge O'Ferrall (now Justice of the Court of Appeal of Alberta). The defendant sat on a motorcycle, positioned it fully upright, and when he returned the motorcycle to rest on the kickstand, the bike crashed to the floor.

There were three potential paths to liabilty argued, none successfully:

  • negligence (for example, if the defendant had repositioned the kickstand at any point—there was no evidence of this)
  • trespass to goods (but this would have required intentional or negligent treatment of the good)
  • contract (which would have required a clear "you break it, you buy it" policy with express statement that the customer would be liable even for non-negligent damage—there wasn't)

Context mattered. Liability might be made more strict more easily in a china shop. The judge wrote:

in the end, this case must turn on the presence or absence of negligence because, at least in the circumstances of a motorcycle shop, a “break it, you buy it” arrangement would have required an element of fault on the part of the breaker, absent a very clearly communicated term that the customer pays irrespective of negligence. There being no such term and negligence having not been proven, I find the Defendant not liable. In so doing, I considered the china shop analogy. It may be that in a china shop one could infer that the customer pays for broken items irrespective of fault because there is no need to touch the item in order to make the purchase decision. But in order to make an informed purchase of a motorcycle, the purchaser must try it on for size and the fact that he must do so makes it much more difficult to infer a no-fault promise to pay for damage howsoever caused.

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There are no special laws here

That is, the law is the same as if you broke anyone else’s stuff. Unless it isn’t - check your local statutes.

If you did it intentionally then that’s criminal damage and you can be charged by the police and sued by the owner for restitution.

If you were negligent, which would require showing you had a duty of care and that you failed in that duty, you could be sued for restitution but it would not be a crime. It would also be subject to reductions for contributory negligence, for example, if the shopkeeper had used the pyramid of produce trope, then you could argue they were partially liable.

A pure accident without any negligence on your part does not expose you to liability.

Damages are that you would be liable for the loss - that is the cost of replacing the goods.

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  • Thanks for fixing it - upvoted Mar 17, 2023 at 6:06

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