Petty or Fair? You be the Judge.

by TTMK on July 19, 2012 · 8 comments

Recently, I heard that the father of a childhood friend of mine passed away.  I hadn’t seen either the friend or his father in nearly 15 years, and they had moved several states away since then.  Regardless, the news made an impression on me, since the guy was nice to me way back when and I talked to him a fair amount.

Anyway, as I thought back on my interactions with him, one memory came back to me. Not the typical fun memory, but one about how a different friend of mine got into a minor car accident with the man.  We’ll call the man “Mr. A”, his son “Bob”, and the other friend “Charles”. Not their real names 🙂

We were 17 or 18 years old when this happened, and I wasn’t actually present when it happened. But what apparently occurred was Charles following Mr. A (with Bob as a passenger in his Dad’s car) as they were headed someplace in separate cars.  At a stoplight, Charles must have been distracted, because as he approached, he slowed down too late and ended up running into Mr. A’s car.

In reality, the “accident” didn’t cause much damage, but there was a minor problem with the bumper or tail light.  Anyway, Mr. A was not a happy camper about the episode, and apparently lectured Charles – his son’s friend – about his poor driving.

Subsequently, he apparently got an estimate of repairs and found out it was around $100. It may have been a bit more, but probably not too much more.  Keep in mind that Mr. A was known to be a big time money saver, having a nice job while living in a good but not ostentatious house.  His household was thought of as one “with money”. Charles didn’t come from a household that seemed to have that kind of money. He was kind of a goofball, but a good guy. Additionally, he was a good friend of Bob.

Apparently, Charles told Mr. A that he would talk to his parents about helping to pay for the damage.  Given the economic differences between the two families, I remember him telling me that he was just being polite. He didn’t really expect Mr. A to actually expect him to pay for whatever damage was there.

You probably see where this is going. Mr. A, the next time Charles came over, informed the kid that he owed him $100 for the damage based on an estimate he got.

Charles ended up paying it, as he did have some money saved up. However, he was quite hurt by the experience. At that age, he had never imagined that a good friend’s well to do father would actually bill for minor damage from the accident.  I remember his mother mentioning some less than kind words about the situation to me as well. Clearly, she was upset that Charles was billed for this by a family that clearly had money, and had a son with whom Charles had been friends for quite some time. It obviously stung them, but they did pay. I completely believe that they thought while it might have been technically fair that Mr. A wanted to be compensated, they really believed that given the friendship and disparity between the families, he could have let this one slide given that it was an innocent mistake.

At the time, as a teenager, I thought Mr A was being incredibly petty. I lost some respect for him.

Fast forward to very recently, as an older person, a father now myself.  As I recalled this whole episode after hearing the news of Mr. A’s death – which was of course many years later – I revisited my opinion on that episode. I have to say that the first thing I did was cringe when remembering that situation. It temporarily served as a downer in my thoughts of all the other positive experiences I had with the guy.

However, the older and presumably wiser version of me started to think that maybe Mr. A may have been more fair than I realized at the time.  In reality, he may have taught young Charles a good lesson about responsibility. Charles was bit of a character, as I alluded to earlier. By being made to compensate the seemingly wealthy father of his friend – despite being from very modest means himself – Charles might have learned some good lessons. Among those are that we must take responsiblity for our actions, and that even if you have far less money than someone else, they may not care and will try to take your money if they feel they deserve it. Life isn’t always forgiving just to be nice.

But then I go back to thinking that we were all just kids…..would I really do that to friends of my kids, when they’re older?

I’m curious what you think about this.

My Questions for You:

Do you think that Mr. A was fair in billing his son’s kid for an innocent mistake, or was it petty?

Should Mr. A have given the kid a break due to reality that the kid came from lesser economic means than he did?

Or, do you think that this was probably good for Charles because of the lessons it taught him?

How would you handle such a situation?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily @ evolvingPF July 19, 2012 at 8:56 am

I agree with your grown-up assessment. Mr. A would have been right to go either route – being fairly compensated for an accident for which he was not at fault or to forgive the young man of his debt. Either way, I would hope that the episode would have made an impression on the young man. That he assumed that Mr. A would absorb the loss means that forgiving the debt would have had very little effect (he would not have been grateful) and asking for compensation was the more impactful choice. I really don’t think the wealth difference between the families should factor in to the situation.

(P.S. When I was a teenager, one of my friends who was following me rear-ended me. There was no question that her family/insurance company would pay the repairs.)

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Daisy July 19, 2012 at 9:04 am

I think it was right of him to bill him. My stepdad did the same thing to my brothers friend who backed into his truck, taking out a tail light. It teaches responsibility. If you had hit somebody else’s car, they’d bill you, so it doesn’t matter if you know the person.

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Kathleen @ Frugal Portland July 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

I’m not sure what I’d do — what lesson does NOT charging your neighbor teach? That it’s okay to not pay attention when you’re driving, so long as you know the person you hit? I think maybe I would have slipped him back the $100 for a graduation gift or something down the line, with a note about responsibility.

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Anne @ Unique Gifter July 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

This is a great suggestion!

“I think maybe I would have slipped him back the $100 for a graduation gift or something down the line, with a note about responsibility.”

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Edward Antrobus July 19, 2012 at 8:04 pm

A similar experience happened with a friend last year. This friend (S) makes a very good salary and he was spending time with another friend (P) who has been struggling financially. S had been drinking and let P drive home. On the way, they hit a deer. It happens to everyone at one point or another (at least in that part of the country). P was very apologetic but never offered to pay for the damages. S wouldn’t have actually made him pay, or even let him pay, but was upset that P never even made the attempt.

In this case, I think that asking for reimbursement at first was appropriate, but following up or accepting it was unnecessary.

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Anne @ Unique Gifter July 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Hmmm… knowing that my co-worker was out $4K for what only looked like a smashed headlight from an elk, I think that it is even more out of line to not offer :-S Accepting, as you’ve said, is way out of line. I’m in the same situation as your more well-off friend… way more well off than friends I would ask to drive my drunk-a** home!

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Anne @ Unique Gifter July 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm

From the jist of what you included in your story, I think it’s out of line that the kid/family didn’t offer to cover the costs. I know that if I had done it, my parents would have either called Mr.A directly to make sure everything was sorted out, or have had me deal with it all to ensure I was taking responsibility (though it would have been their money as I didn’t really have any of my own). That said, I primarily grew up in a fairly affluent area.
Once, as teenagers celebrating the Olympic hockey gold, we broke a side window when a hockey stick caught a pipe in underground parking… the poor friend didn’t pay a share, the others did, my parents didn’t 100% care either way, because we immediately went home and fessed up. Boy did one friend get it from his Dad!

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SB @ One Cent At A Time July 22, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Well, I feel lessons can be imparted without asking for money. The way you described the episode I’lk wouldn’t have taken the money from Charles.

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