Sunday, September 25, 2011

When bad driving happens to good customers

Stacks of bagged mulch, stone and gravel sit in the parking lots of a regional chain of small hardware stores. It's common for customers to park close to these heaps to make it easier to load the goods into their trunks.

"It's just a neighborly gesture the hardware store makes by accommodating this parking," writes a reader. "Or so I thought."

After two clerks from the hardware store loaded his car's trunk with the bags of mulch he had purchased, he began to drive away. When he heard an awful scraping noise that is all too familiar to those who have been in fender benders, my reader realized that his car had grazed a pallet of bricks that were sticking out near where he had parked.

"The manager did nothing but shrug and say I was not supposed to park next to the bags of mulch," writes my reader. "I asked him where the signs were telling people this. Where were the ropes and pylons and other things directing us where to park? Why didn't the employees who loaded up my car say anything?"

Ultimately, my reader had to ask the manager to get a forklift to remove the bricks so he could get his car out of the parking lot.

"I contacted a police officer, who followed me back to the hardware store," he writes. "As the officer was writing up the accident and my car was again in the 'mulch' lane, another worker came up and asked which bags we wanted loaded into my car!"

My reader's car repair cost him about $400. He figures that equals about two years' worth of products from the hardware store that in the past he might have purchased. "Perhaps I will visit the store again in two years," he writes.

Has the business since changed the signage? "When my temper settles, I may drive by to look."

Was the hardware store in the wrong here? He wants to know.

Sure, the hardware store should have posted signs in the parking lot near the mulch if it didn't want customers to park there. And if they didn't want customers parking there, they certainly shouldn't have instructed workers to encourage them to park there when they needed bags of mulch loaded.

But my reader isn't entirely off the hook. The pallet of bricks was in the parking lot when he arrived. He was responsible for being aware of his surroundings as he left the parking space, whether that meant avoiding the piles of mulch and gravel, the other parked cars, or pallets of goods parked there.

The right thing would have been for the manager to offer whatever assistance he could after the accident, but not to lay blame upon the customer for doing something that was customary and encouraged by the store's employees. And the right thing for the customer was to acknowledge that he made a mistake in banging up his car, and to take responsibility for his own fender bender.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business,"  is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Bill Jacobson said...


The customer is likely wholly responsible for the accident and I really don't see how it could be any other way. The bricks were there when the customer pulled up and remained stationary the entire time. The customer was the only person in control of his vehicle both when he parked to load the mulch and especially when he pulled away and into the stationary brick pile. Some level of personal responsibility needs to be taken here. If the customer won't do it, then his insurance company will. He doesn't mention it but who did the officer find at fault in his report? Doubt the store will go after it but they are entitled to damage done to their bricks.

Sometimes the right thing is take responsibility for your actions.

Bill Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

ECS said...

There is something missing from this story. Why did the customer need the bricks removed by a forklift?

Where were the bricks that the customer could park where he did but not drive away?

Something is fishy.