Sunday, June 17, 2007


When a reader starts off her e-mail "I have done a dumb thing," the story that follows is typically packed with equal parts confession and contrition. Such e-mails often end with a hint from the reader that she thinks, regardless of how clear the evidence is, that perhaps what she did wasn't so dumb and she was more the victim of circumstances.

That's usually why I get such letters. Readers are looking for some absolution from what looks pretty much like a dumb move ... and who better to provide such absolution than an ethics columnist?

In this case, my reader's mother was having knee surgery. My reader mentioned to an acquaintance that she needed a portable commode chair for her mother to use while recuperating. The acquaintance offered to lend her one. When she got it home, however, my reader found that it was very old and rusty, had a torn seat and generally was in poor condition.

Still, she took it to her mother's house to see if she wanted to use it. She didn't, and instead used her walker to get to the bathroom.

Here's where the dumb part comes in: My reader forgot that the commode was on loan and gave it away.

"It was a lapse of judgment," she says.

The commode on loan was so old that its particular model is no longer made. Replacement models run between $140 and $400, and my reader's acquaintance wants $206 to buy a replacement.

"I have paid her the money," my reader writes, "but I wonder what my responsibility was to her. Did I do the right thing or get taken advantage of?"

What my reader wants to know, essentially, is whether the fact that the item she borrowed turned out to be so old and battered that she couldn't use it should have any bearing on whether or not she was obligated to pay the full replacement price to the woman who loaned it to her. Answer: It shouldn't and doesn't.

When we borrow stuff, we're obligated to return that stuff when we're through with it, regardless of whether or not the stuff is as good as we hoped it would be when it was originally described to us. Since it wasn't her property, my reader had no business giving away the borrowed commode.

If she was too embarrassed to tell her acquaintance why she wasn't going to keep the commode, she simply could have returned it and thanked her without a lengthy explanation. Throwing it out or giving it to someone else were not appropriate choices.

The acquaintance has a right to ask for a replacement. If my reader thought that a lower-priced commode might more closely match the one she borrowed, she might have offered an alternative to the $206 model. I'm not sure that quibbling about price would have been appropriate, however, given that she didn't bother to tell the acquaintance that she was giving away the commode.

My reader was not taken advantage of. She did indeed do a dumb thing in giving away something that wasn't hers. But by reimbursing her acquaintance for the item that she borrowed and gave away, she has now done the right thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The woman who borrowed the bedside commode for her mother did the right (albeit expensive) thing in buying a replacement. All she had to do to avoid this expense was tell the truth - that her mother was using the walker and would not use the borrowed bedside commode - and then quickly return it. She can chalk this expensive lesson up to experience. She should put this behind her, and never mention this episode to anyone.......especially the friend.