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WATCH IT!

By: Rabbi Max Sutton

Sam left his valuable Rolex watch on a desk after removing it from his wrist while taking an exam. Barry, an acquaintance of Sam, recognized the unattended watch as he passed by the desk, and picked it up in order to return it to him. Since Sam already began his next class, Barry placed the watch in an unlocked drawer in his dorm room. Less than 20 minutes later when Sam realized he lost his watch he frantically began to search for it. Shortly thereafter, Barry contacted Sam and they together went to his room only to discover that the watch had been stolen from the drawer. Sam was beside himself, and demanded full reimbursement for his Rolex watch. Barry replied that he did Sam a favor by trying to return his lost watch, and that he reasonably placed it in his drawer with some of his own valuables. Sam asserted that his watch was in mint condition and that according to the Rolex price chart his particular watch is worth $5000. Barry replied that even in the event he is liable, he seems to recall that Sam’s watch was not in good condition, and that its face value is perhaps less than what Sam is proposing.

Is Barry obligated to pay Sam for his watch? If so, is Sam to be believed that his watch was in mint condition? How should the Bet Din rule and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, if an identifiable item is accidently left in a public area, a finder is required to attempt to return the item to its rightful owner. In the interim, while the finder still has the item in his possession, his degree of liability if the item is stolen or lost is a point of contention. By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, a finder is similar to a paid watchman and is liable in case of theft or loss, while it is the opinion of other leading halachic authorities to exempt a finder in such instances. Detailed reasoning for the above disputing opinions is recorded in the Talmud, and is not within the scope of this article.

While it is a matter of dispute whether a person who finds an item is liable for theft or loss, if both the finder and owner are of Sephardic origin, the finder is required to abide by the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch and is therefore responsible. Furthermore, in instances in which the item was stolen from the finder on account of his negligence, according to all opinions he is required to reimburse the owner. Although he performed a good deed by picking up the lost item with intent to return it, he is nevertheless responsible for its safekeeping.

As mentioned, by rule of the Shulhan Aruch, a person safekeeping an item for another is required to store it in a place protected from thieves. If the item is stolen because it was left in an inappropriate spot, the watchman may not claim that he is free of liability even if he stored the item alongside his own personal valuables. This is true even if his personal valuables were stolen as well. The obvious rationale behind this ruling is, that a person can choose to be negligent with his own property, but not with the property of another.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, in instances in which an owner claims that the item lost had a definite minimal value, and the watchman responsible for the loss only suggests that perhaps the value was less, the watchman is liable to pay the price dictated by the owner. Since it is evident from the watchman’s claim that he is unsure of the lost item’s true value, he is not entitled to support his position under oath. Without the ability to testify under oath, he is required to pay the amount the owner is demanding. In instances in which both the owner and watchman are sure of their claims, the watchman is released of the price demanded by the owner after supporting his position under oath.

Payment Due

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of Sam, obligating Barry to pay for the stolen watch. Barry’s claim that he is exempt from payment because he did a good deed by attempting to return the watch, was rejected by our Bet Din. Although he did a good deed, once he took responsibility to return the watch, he is liable for his negligence. Placing a valuable watch in an unlocked drawer in a dorm is clearly an act of negligence. Barry’s claim, that he is possibly exempt from payment because he placed the watch with his own valuables in the drawer, was rejected as well. Since although Barry may choose to act negligently with his own property, he may not do so with another’s. Additionally, by rule of the Shulhan Aruch, Barry’s degree of responsibility includes all cases of theft, even if it is proven that he was not negligent. Our Bet Din ultimately rejected Barry’s claim that he seems to recall that perhaps the watch was not in mint condition. Our Bet Din sensed that Barry was not sure about this claim and upon further questioning, it was apparent that Barry was unaware of the true condition of the watch. He was unable to specify why he suggested the watch was less than Sam had proposed. Without a definite claim Barry is not entitled to defend his position under oath and is required to pay the full amount.