Slippery fingers, restless kids and a jam-packed china shop ... if you break something, who pays? The answer depends on the circumstances, and in particular, whether someone's been negligent.

Your rights

If the breakage happened due to your carelessness, the shop may ask for compensation to cover the damage caused. That's because consumers are legally obliged to exercise "due care" when in a shop or inspecting its goods. This means taking reasonable care not to damage or break items you come into contact with.

That responsibility may include children you might be supervising, particularly if they are young or have a tendency to break things. We've heard of many accidents caused by children, with damage to everything from inexpensive toys to a $1500 sculpture. Adults have a duty to supervise children in their care and can be held responsible for any damage they cause. It's not up to the store to keep an eye on your kids.

But acting responsibly goes two ways. It could be the shop which has been negligent: it may have placed items too close together, stacked them badly, put a fragile object in front of the door or spilt something slippery on the floor. If the shop's been careless in this way, you could reasonably refuse to pay if an accident happens.

What about the shop's insurance? A shop is likely to have insurance cover against breakages, but this won't always let you off. We know of cases where the insurance company has met a shop's claim, then tried to recover its costs from the customer.

Sometimes a shop will display a notice that says something like "If you break it, you pay for it" but this will only be valid if you were negligent. More specific notices may be binding. If you ignore one that says "Please don't touch", you can expect to pay for any damage caused by your carelessness.

Some people think they aren't responsible if they didn't mean to break something. This is not true. It will depend on whether you have taken reasonable care.

Our advice

  • If a shop asks you to pay, you should only agree if you accept you were responsible.
  • If you can't agree who's to blame, leave your name and contact address. It will then be up to the shop to take a claim to a Disputes Tribunal, if it wishes. Remember that this is a civil matter, not a criminal one, so don't be cowed by threats to call the police.
  • If the shop demands that you pay and you don't think you're responsible, you could put in a claim to a Disputes Tribunal yourself, for an independent ruling.
  • If you are at fault, it may be worth filing a claim with your insurance company. Many house contents policies include personal liability damage that covers this situation. There will probably be an excess to pay, though.