Q. My contractor left some expensive supplies in my house. I informed him about it, but he doesn't seem to be in any rush to pick them up. What can I do?
A. You seem to have become an involuntary bailee for your contractor. Last week we discussed one kind of involuntary bailment – a lost object. The questioner never made an agreement with the owner to take care of the coat, and didn't even know who the owner was, but by virtue of the commandment to return the object became partially responsible for it.
Your case is similar in that you unintentionally obtained possession of the supplies, but there is an important difference: you know who the owner is. The result is that once you notify the owner, your responsibility is minimal.
The Talmud tells of a fascinating incident similar to yours:
A man bought a barrel of wine, but couldn't find any place to store it. He said to a certain woman, can you rent me a storage place? She said to him, no. He went and betrothed here, and [then] she gave him a place to put it. He went to his house, wrote her a bill of divorcement, and sent it to her. She went and hired porters from [the value of the barrel] itself, and put it out in the road. Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua said, As he did so was it done to him; his deeds were requited on his own head. Not only in the case of [this] storehouse which was not for rent, but even if it had been a storehouse for rent [where she could have demanded payment and if necessary held the wine as a pawn] she has the right to say: I am willing to rent it to anyone else, but not to you, because you are a lion lying in wait. (1)
Your case differs in two main ways from the one in the Talmud. On the one hand, your contractor did not do you wrong, as the scoundrel in the story did to the poor lady. (The passage does not say if she ever collected her divorce settlement.) So you wouldn't be justified in evicting his goods if you had a proper commercial warehouse and you were able to collect regular payment from him.
But on the other hand, the supplies are not in your warehouse but in your house. This is certainly considered "not for rent" since you never intended to store contracting supplies there. Therefore, after giving the contractor fair warning you would be justified in removing the supplies from your house, at the contractor's expense if necessary. Removing them to the street, which would result in damage to the supplies, would be justified only as a last resort. You have a responsibility to get them out of the house in the way that causes the least lost for the owner, for instance, to have them transferred to the basement of a neighbor who is willing to store them for a fee, or to a commercial warehouse.
If the objects are not extremely bothersome, it would be both nicer and easier not to throw the supplies out right away, but rather to announce to the contractor that you will start charging a named storage fee for them. Make the fee high enough so that it doesn't become a convenience for him to store them but not so high, at least at first, as to create a windfall for yourself.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 101b
Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to email@example.com
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.