Sunday, December 07, 2008


Many neighbors seek out Dodie for advice. A regular reader of this column in southern California, she tries her best to help out when she can -- but sometimes she is simply flummoxed as to how to respond.

That was the case recently, when a friend came to her with a question about her trash company.

It seems that her friend regularly puts out her trash on the curb alongside her recycling bins for pickup. Recently, however, the garbage men not only picked up what had been left on her curb, but also walked into her yard and carried off the recycling that she had stored in bags leaning against her house.

The bags clearly had not been left for trash pickup, so the friend called the trash company to see if she could "get the situation fixed." The company explained that, unfortunately, the driver was new and didn't know better than to walk into her yard and take something that was on her private property.

This fell a little short of an apology, but my reader's friend was hoping for more than an apology. She is a single mother, raising a young teenager, and had counted on the money from recycling her own cans to help with her daughter's soccer costs. An apology would be welcome, but wouldn't address her basic problem.

Dodie wants to know the right thing for the trash company to do.

Every municipality has its own code regarding things such as trash pickup. Apparently there's nothing explicit in Dodie's town code that indicates that a law was broken, but it seems pretty clear that the trash collector overstepped his bounds here.

What's more, in its list of residential services, the disposal company specifically defines the type and size of trash containers and stipulates that all trash must be placed at curbside. Trash improperly packaged or not placed at curbside will not be picked up. Therefore the trash collector broke his own company's policy when he went into the friend's yard to pick up the garbage bags full of recycling.

Clearly there's no malice involved here. The trash collector was doubtless well-intentioned and thought that he was doing the resident a favor by hauling off garbage bags that he wasn't technically obliged to remove. Nonetheless, he had no right to go into the yard to do so. Grabbing every bag in sight is beyond his call of duty, and sooner or later was bound to result in him taking stuff that people had no intention of throwing away. I can recall some early moves to new apartments in which I carted all of my belongings in green garbage bags.

Placing aside the law -- since I am, after all, not a lawyer -- and focusing on the ethics of the situation -- since I am, after all, an ethics columnist -- an apology would be a good first step. If the trash company wants to do the right thing, however, having admitted that the bag of recyclables was taken mistakenly, it should consider reimbursing her for the cash value of the cans that she lost. Or it might consider crediting her trash-collection bill for that day's pickup.

Even when the economy is not forcing people to watch costs and be more meticulous about returning cans for deposit, the stuff we store on our lawns should be safe from over-vigilant garbage collectors. The company should do whatever it can to ensure that a young girl's soccer plans are not trashed.

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


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, as usual, your explanation of the dilemma and suggestion as to how this dilema might be solved are right on. Going a step further however, I do not know how the trash collection company can (a) determine the value of the wrongly picked up items and (b) regardless of the right or wrong of the performance of the trash collection company in this instance, I think Ms. Dodie must accept some responsibility in this whole fiasco taking place by having left next to the house what looked to the collector like something he should pick up and perhaps she should not expect the trash company to reimburse her for the lost items. We are only talking about a moral dilemma here, not a legal case. She has already complained to the business and received a half hearted answer and non-apology. Does she therefore want to further take this case to another level, which might possibly involve being unable to agree on a mutually fair cost of the reimbursement of her missing items. There is even some doubt of being able to arrive at the true value based only on her memory of the missing items. I believe this is a case where Ms. Dodie must chalk this situation up to experience. Heaping more coals on her here, it may even be a lesson for her because perhaps the outside of her house is not the place to have stored the recycling items without a sign saying "Hands Off".

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Bill Jacobson said...

The law and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Both stem from the same base - that of society's expectations on behavior.

The legal case would seem to be relatively clear. She would have a civil and criminal case against both the trash collector and the trash company (through agency). Civil claims for conversion of goods. Damages would amount to the reasonable value of the goods converted. Mistake does not provide a civil defense. The criminal case for larceny would likely fall short on criminal intent (due to mistake) but she should have a slam dunk case for trespass.

Are we really asking whether it is ethical to take another's property?

On whether it is worth her time and effort to pursue the matter, if finances are that tight, it may be worth following up with a letter to the company that specifically requests compensation for the lost cans but I agree with the previous commentator in that she should probably chock it up to experience and better secure her recyclables to avoid these issues.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA