If you break it, have you, in fact, bought it?
I ask this because of an incident that unfolded a couple of weekends ago at a lighting showroom in Maryland.
Fact One: A customer shopping at the lighting store bumped his head on a glass shade that hung from the ceiling.
Fact Two: The shade broke.
Fact Three: The store owner called the police.
Fact Four: The police came.
There are a lot of gaps in this little tale, but I think you'll agree that the biggest gap comes between Facts Two and Three: The police were called? Over a broken light?
Why things went this far depends on whom you talk to. I haven't spoken to all of the parties involved -- our unlucky light breaker, chief among them -- so I'm not going to spill the name of the store.
But here are the two main versions of our "Rashomon"-like tale:
A witness to the incident, another shopper, said it was an accident. You know what those showrooms are like: a thousand glowing lights hanging from the ceiling, like fragile stalactites in a cave.
The man bumped one with his head, and it broke. The store owner demanded payment.
The man emphasized the accidental nature of the mishap and said the shop should be more concerned about the state of his head than the state of the light. The police were called.
The store owner said the man acted recklessly, was "boisterous" and, far from being apologetic after breaking the lamp with his head, was belligerent.
"You would have to be very careless, totally oblivious," to break the light, the owner said. "I think he did it deliberately.
"That's why it annoyed me. If he'd been honest with me and said, 'Look, I accidentally bumped into this, and I broke it,' I would have said: 'Forget about it.' "
The owner's wife said the police were called because the customer refused to leave the store when asked.
The witness said the shop owner called the police because the man said he wouldn't pay.
The police came and left after deciding that no law had been broken and that whatever weird mojo was floating around in that store was civil, not criminal, in nature.
I'm less intrigued by this specific incident -- as bizarre as it is (the police?) -- than by the chance it gives me to poke at that maxim: If you break it, you bought it.
Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said he's not aware of any law that would prohibit a merchant from trying to seek restitution for broken merchandise.
"It's the merchant's property that's been destroyed," he said. "I would think the merchant would have the right to seek civil action."
Tom allowed, though, that "one size doesn't fit all. If you drop jar of relish in Giant, they're not going to charge you. If you drop an expensive item and break it, there's some likelihood that some merchants may ask you to pay for it."
Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation, said: "The situation is in some way analogous to walking into someone's home. If you walked into someone's home and broke something, generally people try to reach a reasonable accommodation."
The reasonable accommodation seldom includes civil actions, though.
Rebecca Bowman of the consumer protection division in Maryland's office of the attorney general said complaints like this are an extremely rare thing for her office.
"There are certainly a lot of businesses that would, as a matter of customer goodwill, not make the customer pay for the item," she said.
That's how things are handled at Pritchard's Antiques in Kensington. "We've never made anybody pay," Lynn Pritchard said.
"We just feel it's the liability of having a shop. We squirm, we bite our tongues, we usually say things like 'Accidents happen.' We hope that by being kind and understanding, we'll gain a customer."
Wouldn't the store's insurance policy cover such a mishap? Probably not, said Bryson Popham of Funk & Bolton, an Annapolis law firm that works with insurance brokers and companies.
"First of all, insurance is not a panacea," he said. "It does not cover every loss that a person or a business can experience. With respect to this particular type of incident, it is generally treated as a business risk of the business owner. It's not typically insured."
And what about the signs that Colin Powell famously said illustrated the Pottery Barn rule -- even though it's not actually Pottery Barn's policy: You break it, you own it?
If a case went to trial, a merchant could argue that the sign put customers on notice that they should be careful in the store.
But simply having a sign doesn't automatically entitle the shopkeeper to instant restitution.
"Those signs are not binding contracts," Rebecca said.
As it happens, the lighting store in question does not have such a sign.
"This doesn't happen very often," the shop owner said.
"But when it happens, it depends on how you come at me. . . . I'm not going to get rich insulting customers."
And he didn't get that rich in this case. In the end, the customer ponied up and paid the store's cost for the light. It was $35.
What do you think? Weigh in during my online chat, today at 1 p.m. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.