Sunday, August 17, 2008


Yesterday I was at a local big-box hardware store to purchase some things we needed for our house. Among these was a large trash barrel, the really big kind with wheels and a handle that can be wheeled out to the curb on trash-pickup day.

The checkout clerk lifted off the cover of the barrel, either to make sure that another clerk hadn't mistakenly placed valuable goods inside or to confirm that my wife and I weren't trying to sneak out with more than we had paid for. We paid up, loaded the barrel into the back of our car and went on our way.

We made another stop at another store to pick up some other stuff that we needed, including a wiffleball, a wiffleball bat and some tennis balls. My wife had the efficient thought to carry these loose items inside the new trash barrel. When she lifted off the barrel's cover, however, she found that we had inadvertently been given two lids for the one trash barrel. Apparently the clerk never thought that we might be trying to filch goods on the outside of the barrel, rather than on the inside.

It was the store's mistake, of course, and we were quite a way from the big-box store where we had purchased the barrel. It would be a nuisance to make the trip to return the cover, so we returned home with it.

A few months ago a reader found himself in a similar predicament: He had brought his car into his dealership for repair of a problem with his car lights, which were not turning off and thus were burning out his car's battery. He lives 40 miles from the dealership, so he had his wife follow him in her car to drive him back after he'd left his car at the dealership.

Two days later the dealer called and said that the car had been fixed, so my reader rode back with his wife. He picked up his car and was relieved to be charged only $200. As they were leaving, however, his wife noticed that his taillights were not working. She called him on his cell telephone, and they drove back to the dealer and left the car again.

This occurred several times, resulting in many trips back and forth to the dealership. Eventually the dealer said that it would cost $1,200 to fix the problem.

The car was 10 years old so, instead of paying for the fix, they drove the car only in the daytime for the next week. The following weekend they traded in the car to purchase a new model.

As they were cleaning out the old car, however, they found many long screwdrivers and other tools that had been left in it by the dealership's mechanics.

"We kept them in return for the $200 we paid for a car that was never fixed," my reader reports. "Right or wrong?"

Wrong. As right as he may have been to be annoyed, the errant screwdrivers didn't belong to him. The right thing would have been to return them. Someone else's bad actions don't justify inappropriate actions in retaliation.

Since the dealer really didn't fix the problem for which my reader paid the $200, the right thing for the dealer to do is to refund his money.

And, in spite of the nuisance factor, as soon as I finish writing this column, I'm going to do the right thing and return the trash-barrel lid that isn't mine to keep.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I agree that the car owner shouldn’t keep the tools, but it shouldn’t be his responsibility to make yet another trip to the dealer’s to return them. He should call the dealer, tell him about the tools, and give the dealer the options of (a) having somebody pick them up at his home, (b) reimbursing him for using a delivery service to return them, or (c) saying that the next time he is in the dealer’s area (whenever that might be) he will drop them off.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Clutts. There are often times in life when circumstances present us with an ethical dilemma, such as when a merchant or other business unintentionally or carelessly provides us, the customer, with some kind of undeserved largesse. Most of us have received training in either school or church early enough in life that, during our whole lives, should we be presented with one of these dilemmas, our decision is clear and even though it may require effort or sacrifice on our part, we know when morality requires us to "do the right thing" to borrow a phrase from an ethics column I have heard about someplace!! I am proud to join fellow Carolinian Phil Clutts in doing said right thing, at least in our intention if such an occasion presents itself to us.


Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

As both the nephew and father of car mechanics, another variable or point of view is that the mechanics at dealers are often treated as independent contractors, and are required to purchase their own tools. Thus, while one could argue that they should be more careful with their tools, it is the lowly mechanics who would be hurt by the writer's inaction, not the "big" corporate car dealer.

Michael Kirkman
Bexley, Ohio

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your columns. The column about the trash barrel lids reminded me of the time many years ago when my husband and I put a quarter in a dispenser to purchase a newspaper. It wasn't until we closed the lid that we realized we accidentally took two papers. How could we solve that one? Our solution was to put in another quarter so we could open the lid to put back the extra paper. Now the paper cost 50 cents but at least we knew we did the right thing.


Anonymous said...

I may have a more practical sense of ethics that others, but my solution to the problem of returning items left in your possession by negligent service people is to simply notify them that the items are available for them to retrieve at their convenience. After all, THEY made the mistake.
This would especially apply to the auto repair client who was rather badly treated by the dealer. The relative low value of the item would likely let theme decide not to even bother.......and you are off the


Claude Clouthier
Windsor ON Canada
The Windsor Star

Anonymous said...

You are right on on your comments about the person who thought he was entitled to keep the tools found left in his car, I would add also that the tools left in the car did not belong to the dealership but instead belonged to the individual mechanic who worked on his car, and as a final irony quite possibly the mechanic who fixed the car correctly was the person who's tools were left . I am in the industry and see this happen all the time, many times the cost of the tools the mechanic has to replace exceed the value of the repair. In fairness I hope your reader reconsiders his position.


Jerry Codekas

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin:

I just wanted to thank you and let you know that sometimes your columns do make a difference. In general, you always give me something to ponder. Specifically, I was just tested by an ethical situation and, in light of your latest column "You Shouldn't Keep Stuff that isn't Yours" (Sunday, August 17, 2008), I was led to do the right thing. (I had ordered some doggie treats online and when my order arrived, I found that instead of three of one of items I had ordered, there were four. I have to admit that I briefly thought about simply keeping the extra bag of treats - after all, it wasn't my fault I had received more than I had ordered and paid for. I was, however reminded of your column I had just read on Sunday and picked up the phone.. After explaining the situation, I was rewarded with, not only the satisfaction of doing the right thing, but a 20% discount on the extra bag of treats.) Thanks again and keep writing those columns, helping the rest of us as we bumble through this life.....

Cynthia Salgado
Santa Ana, CA

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that the car owner should definitely return the tools. The fault doesn't lay with the mechanic who, I am sure, purchased those tools themselves.Keeping something that does not belong to you is stealing in anyone's book.

I must also add that I was very pleased to read that you returned the trash-barrel lid.