by Yonason Goldson
Daniel, who owned a neighborhood restaurant, received a call from his friend Michael, who owned a local catering business. Michael’s freezer had broken down just as he received a shipment of frozen chickens. He asked if he could store his chickens in Daniel’s freezer for a couple of weeks until he got his own freezer repaired.
Daniel had room to spare and was happy to help Michael out. When Michael arrived with the chickens, Daniel noticed that the expiration date on the cartons was past due. He pointed this out to Michael, who shrugged it off.
“The expiration date only applies when they’re fresh,” he said. “Once they’re frozen, you can keep them forever.”
Daniel wasn’t so sure, but it was Michael’s business, so he let the matter drop. A month passed, and Daniel heard nothing from Michael. He called Michael, who apologized and said he’d be by that week to pick up his chickens.
More weeks went by, with Michael making excuses every time Daniel called to ask him to retrieve his chickens.
One afternoon, Daniel got a call from a nearby restaurateur. “The inspectors are making surprise visits this week,” he told Daniel. “They’ve already dropped in on me, and they could be at your place any moment. Make sure you have everything in order.”
Daniel remembered the expiration date on Michael’s chickens. It had been three months since Michael had dropped them off “for a couple of weeks.” Daniel was mildly annoyed about the chickens taking up freezer space for so long, but now they threatened his livelihood. If the inspectors saw the expiration dates, they might not agree with Michael’s reasoning and might not believe that Daniel was storing them for someone else. They might fine him, or even shut him down.
Daniel decided he had given Michael enough chances. He carried the chicken cases into the back alley and tossed them into his dumpster.
Two hours later, Michael showed up. “I’m here for my chickens,” he said with a smile.
Daniel explained why he hadn’t been able to hold onto Michael’s chickens any longer, saying he was free to retrieve them from the dumpster. However, in the summer heat the chickens had defrosted enough to attract some local cats, which had rendered the chickens unfit for humans.
Michael demanded that Daniel compensate him for the chickens. Daniel replied that he had ceased to be responsible when Michael failed to retrieve his chickens on time.
There’s no question that Michael exploited Daniel’s kindness by failing to pick up his chickens at the agreed-upon time. If he legitimately intended to leave them only two weeks and ran into unexpected delays, he should have explained his circumstances to Daniel and asked for an extension. After a reasonable grace period, and having received no reasonable excuse, Daniel had every right to issue an ultimatum.
When he accepted responsibility for the chickens, Daniel simultaneously accepted responsibility to look after the chickens as if they were his own. This required him to ensure that the freezer remained in working condition and take reasonable precautions against theft. However, once the originally agreed-upon time elapsed, responsibility reverted to Michael to pick up his chickens or formally renew his arrangement with Daniel. Since Michael failed to do so, Daniel is no longer responsible for the chickens.
The question here, however, is whether Daniel had the right to actively cause Michael a financial loss by disposing of the chickens?
It would have been proper for Daniel to call Michael immediately to inform him that his chickens were being left in the alley. Michael’s previous unresponsiveness does not exempt Daniel from making an effort to give him fair warning.
Daniel also might have attempted a more creative solution, like putting the chickens in his car and letting Michael know that he had until the end of the day to retrieve them or they would be disposed of.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He’s host of the weekly podcast Grappling with the Gray and author of “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Happiness and Business Prosperity,” from which this article is taken. Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.