Sunday, February 08, 2009


Elinor Kohler, a reader from Columbus, Ohio, was perturbed by a recent episode of the television program "Dr. Phil." The segment in question asked, "Would you return a diamond ring if a jeweler gave you the wrong one by mistake?"

The gist of the issue was that Eddie had proposed to Ashley and given her a lovely diamond ring, one that apparently they had picked out together. Crying, celebration and ring attachment ensued. The next day, however, Eddie received a call from the jeweler telling him that he had been given the wrong ring. The one he got was worth about $639 more than the one they actually had picked out.

The jeweler asked Eddie to return the ring. Eddie didn't want to, because by now he and Ashley were so sentimentally attached to this particular ring that he couldn't simply swap it for another one.

The jeweler asked Eddie to pay the difference in price. Eddie didn't want to, because the mistake had been the jeweler's, not his.

The jeweler took the issue to court, but Eddie didn't show up for the court date.

And they all ended up talking to Dr. Phil McGraw.

What irked my reader, though, was not the actions of either side in the dispute, but rather the solution that McGraw came up with.

"My first thought was that of course he should give back the ring or pay the difference," Kohler writes. "Dr. Phil thought otherwise."

He started by reminding the jeweler that it would cost more than $639 to sue the couple for the ring. So far, so good. The jeweler offered to settle for $500.

The couple still balked, so McGraw asked the jeweler if he would split the difference and take $320. He said yes, and the couple agreed.

Then -- and here's the kicker that really tossed my reader for a loop -- McGraw told the couple that he would pay the $320, and even treat them to a really nice dinner to celebrate getting the matter resolved.

"That just didn't seem right to me," Kohler writes. "What do you think?"

No matter how many jewelers have schooled me, I'm not sure I could tell the difference between similarly sized diamonds if they were in the same setting. But whether or not Eddie and Ashley made an honest mistake is not my reader's question.

Was the host wrong to negotiate a lower price, pay off the difference and then reward the couple with a nice meal?

Because the couple and the jeweler came to the show to seek McGraw's assistance in finding a solution, he did the right thing in trying to get the parties to reach a compromise.

And, while it may seem that his decision to pay the difference himself and send them out to dinner gave the couple everything they wanted and the jeweler only half, there was nothing untoward about that decision, so long as the outcome was not prearranged between McGraw and the couple.

It isn't relevant to the current discussion whether the court would have found for the couple or for the jeweler. The jeweler, in reaching a compromise, willingly waived whatever his legal rights might be, and he's perfectly free to do so. This isn't a case of McGraw imposing a verdict on the jeweler, willy nilly, but rather a case of his convincing both sides to give up part of what they hoped to get.

I understand Kohler's displeasure at McGraw's picking up the price of the ring. If the host, a wealthy man to whom the money isn't consequential, was going to open his own wallet, why not give the jeweler $639 at the beginning and save everyone the trouble?

But there's no reason -- again, assuming that things weren't arranged beforehand -- for McGraw not to be generous in this instance. And by waiting until after the compromise had been struck, he allowed the process of compromise to work its way to fruition, which may well have offered valuable lessons to both parties and to the viewing audience, and certainly made for more compelling television.

It may sit uneasy with those of us who pay full freight for the things we buy. But when someone wants to help someone else out of a financial pickle because they feel their pain, good on them. Next time I'm given merchandise that's more expensive than whatever I actually purchased, I'm still likely to return it rather than call Dr. Phil to help me out. But if you want to ring him up, go right ahead.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


M. Lawrence said...

I suppose that's the kind of solution that can be expected from a television personality who is 1. a towering opportunist and self-promoter 2. calls himself "Dr." while 3. not being licensed to practice psychology anywhere in the country. Compromise and ethics are two different things. By this report, at no time did McGraw ask the couple "would you have returned to the jeweler if your diamond were LESS valuable than the one you originally selected?" It's hard to imagine that their "sentiment" over the diamond would extend quite that far, given their me-first attitude. The ethical answer to this problem is so obvious as to make the "Dr. Phil" solution infuriating. Of course, he can pay anything he likes. Maybe it's good television for his ratings, which of course is the first consideration. But where ethics is the issue, it would at least have been nice to hear the question asked of the couple, "Would you want someone else to behave this way to you?"

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with this because I find it hard to believe any jeweler could possibly make a mistake of nearly $700 like this. Jewelers are trained to recognize worth of rings at a glance and certainly would not make a deal unless they were sure of the worth of the ring they let walk out of the store. Second, as the other writer indicated, Dr.Phil is a bit of a fraud and promoter and this whole thing (as many of his shows do) reeks of a set up. Not only this but the subjects who were supposedly taken advantage of by the jeweler sound like a couple of losers. It is pretty evident that the Dr. Phil Show has sunk to the level of promotion and fakery and is coming near to the Jerry Springer show. In answer to the question, of course, the couple should make good on the deal they got, but as I said, I think something smells here, since no jeweler would make that big of a mistake.

South Carolina

Anonymous said...

I worked in retail jewelry from 1980 to 1997. Any of our store managers who gave a customer the wrong merchandise knew that unless the customer willingly gave the item back, the manager was going to pay for the mistake one way or another.

While a display case of diamond solitaires may all look identical to the untrained eye, a true professional ... Read Morecan tell the differences. A good jeweler has procedures in place to make sure he doesn't give out the wrong item to the wrong person.

Shame on the jeweler for not accepting responsibility for the error.

Tom Dalrymple

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

I can't believe in this day and age that there are still dishonest people who try to get out of paying for a mistake of a jeweler. I could never, in my wildest dreams, take a ring that I didn't pay for in full, especially if the true cost was discovered after the purchase. I would rather return it. Who cares the sentimental value when you realize the actual value of the ring is something you can't afford in the first place?

What I find worse is the actions of the jeweler. When faced with a dilemma, he not only pays $320 for the item, he buys the couple a dinner. How ignorant can you get? Who could trust the jeweler after that ethical disaster? He most likely could do the opposite in a fix up situation where he would switch out and give the customer the wrong ring again, but in this case he'd give a LESS valued ring in his inventory and keep (for himself) the expensive ring the customer actually owns. If I were judge in this case, I'd take the license away from the dumb jeweler and make the couple return the ring or pay up (no other exceptions or excuses).

Take care,

Enea Ostrich
Seal Beach, CA

Anonymous said...

In the 80's my brother worked for a jewelry manufacturer. At that time, our family could purchase rings at between a quarter or a third of the retail price depending on the price of gold. In addition, it is currently not uncommon to see jewelry at 50% to 60% off at department stores like JC Penneys. So, it is safe to surmise that jewelry is significantly "marked up."

Nowhere does the jeweler indicate his "mark up." I'm guessing he probably still made a tidy profit depending on the price of the original ring. I see no reason for the couple to have negotiated with the jeweler through Dr. Phil.

In addition, I would be hesitant to shop at a store with such poor customer service. I think the store owner was a fool to allow himself the negative exposure on Dr. Phil for a mere $320.

Karen Gill

Anonymous said...

I am writing to you to comment about this commentary that was published in The Orange County Register.

First of all Dr. Phil is a huckster, a snake oil salesman, and he should not be treated with the reverence that so many people seemed to give him. He is a lot like Gloria Allred, if you can get publicity, he's right in there. Once the press stops swarming around, both of them will drop you like a hot potato (think Britney Spears).

As to the ethics of this issue, when he says it "cost more than $639 to sue the couple for the ring", I just cannot imagine that this would be true in whatever part of the country this incident happened. However, if you were in Riverside County, California, you could fill out a small claims form and file it for $30.00. My process server would charge around $75.00 to serve it. All recoverable costs. He would get his judgment for $639.00, plus the costs for the cost of $105.00. Duh! Did it cost more? No. What a liar.

Next. Is it ethical for him to pay for it, when he is supposed to be "resolving" the dispute? No. The message that he is sending is that if a mistake is made, and recipient of the mistake can benefit from that mistake, keep the item or have Dr. Phil pay their way out of it.

Eddie and Ashley were unjustly enriched at the jeweler's expense and they cannot keep that benefit. If Dr. Phil, wanted to make their payment, out of the goodness of his black heart, well that was his choice, but it was not for philanthropy, it was for ratings. And then, to top it off, he rewards their unjust enrichment and bad behavior with dinner. Just like a parent of spoiled children to solve all the problems of the world with food.

SEE below for more information on unjust enrichment.

In summary, your reader was right on for her outrage, and if there were more like her, and less like Eddie, Ashley and Dr. Phil, the world would be a better place.

Mary Jean


"The equitable remedy of restitution to avoid 'unjust enrichment' has its roots in the common law. '[O]ne person should not be permitted unjustly to enrich himself at the expense of another, but should be required to make restitution of or for property or benefits received, retained, or appropriated, where it is just and equitable that such restitution be made, and where such action involves no violation or frustration of law or opposition to public policy, either directly or indirectly.' [Citation.]" (Gardiner Solder Co. v. SupAlloy Corp., Inc. (1991) 232 Cal.App.3d 1537, 1542).

A person who has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another is required to make restitution. (Rest., Restitution, § 1.) A person is enriched if he or she has received a benefit. (Rest., supra, § 1, com. a.) A benefit is conferred not only where one adds to the property of another, but also where one saves the other from expense or loss. Thus, the term benefit denotes any form of advantage. (Rest., supra, § 1, com. b.). However, the mere fact a person benefits another is not of itself sufficient to require the other to make restitution therefor. The recipient of the benefit is liable only if the circumstances are such that, as between the two persons, it is unjust for the recipient to retain it. (Rest., supra, § 1, com. c.).

Section 12 of the Restatement of Restitution, pertaining to unilateral mistake in bargains, provides: "A person who confers a benefit upon another, manifesting that he does so as an offer of a bargain which the other accepts or as the acceptance of an offer which the other has made, is not entitled to restitution because of a mistake which the other does not share and the existence of which the other does not know or suspect."

The benefit need not be conferred directly by the party seeking restitution: For a benefit to be conferred, it is not essential that money be paid directly to the recipient by the party seeking restitution. Further, a transferee with knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the unjust enrichment may be obligated to make restitution. Solano v. Vallejo Redevelopment Agency (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 1262, 1277.

family*mom said...

That couple made me so angry! If the jeweler had given them a ring that was hundreds of dollars LESS valuable than what they paid, they would CERTAINLY take the ring back to upgrade it. Their story was BS. They just defended their poor character to thousands of will come back to bite them in the butt, that's for sure!!!!