Wednesday, December 30, 2009


If You Go to a Birthday Party at a Restaurant and Somebody Skips Out, Who Pays Her Bill?

Akal Singh Krau is an extremely interesting guy who is a law student at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville). A few months ago he invited me to give my standard doom-and-gloom talk to bum out his peers, and we realized that he literally grew up down the street from where I currently live. Anyway, since he was back home for the holidays we had dinner. Afterward my other buddy and I went to the karaoke bar (of course), while Akal went to a "hip" Nashville restaurant, PM, where one of his friends was having a birthday party celebration. Here's Akal's post-game show:
The scene at the restaurant was...highly contentious by the time I left! One of the birthday girl's friends accidentally walked out without paying her check. Other than the birthday girl, no one else present knew the friend who walked out, so none of us felt any responsibility.

The waiter and restaurant manager kept pushing the concept of "the table" as a single entity by which all persons present are accountable for every item brought to it. I tried to explain basic contract liability (which I presented as methodologically individualistic) but completely gave up when the manager looked at me and said, "Life is gray; nothing is black and white." It wasn't pleasant.
In a follow-up (after I asked for permission to blog this) Akal added:
Yeah, it was kind of interesting. I felt some sympathy with the restaurant's table-as-entity argument since even customers don't always know how the check will be paid. Sometimes I might cover your meal, or you might cover mine; and social grace does not permit us to explicitly work this out in advance. As it would be indelicate for a waiter to require an explicit account for each item ordered and brought to the table, the assumption that someone will cover it seems proper.

On the other side of things, the happenstance placement of one's derrière does not sufficiently communicate an intention to incur gaurantor liability. And how do you define the concept of "the table?" By physical proximity of physical tables? By degree of interaction or familiarity between persons?

Very interesting. I'll wait for someone to comment on the "contractual" aspect. But I'll have a go at the ethical side. It seems that since the birthday girl is the only one who knew the girl who left, she probably feels she should cover it. Being as its her birthday, a true friend (of which I hope the others are) wouldn't let her pay for it and would either pay it him/herself, for the birthday girl, or take charge and offer to pay an equal part if everyone else does. Among decent adults, the situation would resolve itself. Then again...
fuck that, I am not paying crapola
I would be embarrassed to have a conversation about contract liability and responsibility with the waitstaff of a restaurant after a person in my party walked out without paying her check. Even if I didn't know her personally. I feel like that would be sending all sorts of selfish signals, both to the restaurant and to other people present. It also misses an opportunity to act in a genuinely generous manner.

So who ended up paying?
I shall not attempt to define "the table," but I know it when I see it.
What Skyler and Stewart said.

Seriously, if you're at the point where you're debating contract law with a restaurant manager to get out of paying a bill at a birthday party, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

Maybe this is just my SINK[1] talking, but what is so painful about paying someone else's dinner bill with the possibility of being compensated, at least when you divide among those there, that merits arguing with the restaurant staff about legal liability? SHEESH! Save the hairsplitting for stuff that actually matters.

Btw, "accidentally left", my foot.

[1] Single Income No Kids
The Blackadder Says:

the happenstance placement of one's derrière does not sufficiently communicate an intention to incur gaurantor liability. And how do you define the concept of "the table?"

Utter crap. When you walk into a restaurant the first thing they ask you is how many it will be. Nobody treats this as a metaphysically troublesome question. You say "five" (or whatever) and that's the table (and clearly where you put your derrière is sufficient to establish liability, since plenty of restaurants don't allow tables to split checks, and even those that do you usually have to ask them first).
What a shameful situation.

Restaurant owners don't require payment up front because our social conventions permit us (them) to safely assume that the bill will, somehow, be handled afterwards.

But part of that order is the solid concept of the "party" or the "table" (same thing). The party is responsible.

There were two solutions: treat it as a gift, and the entire party chip in; or let the hostess/birthday girl handle it, and treat it as a matter to be adjusted later (the non-payer would owe the hostess). Either way, the entire party owes the restaurant.

But I mean "shameful". This situation was a time for public shaming, not lectures on contract theory.

If Akal had to be such a math toad (sorry buddy, but that's what you were), why didn't he factor in the value of the fun he'd that night? If I was there, I'd have bought him another drink to loosen him up a bit. Too much living and not enough life....
Either someone else at the table pays or birthday girl gives the manager the name/phone number of the walkout and they call the police.
I definitely don't think the restaurant should have had to eat the loss, for the reasons many have brought up here.

However, to defend Akal's initial reaction somewhat: He is a broke law student, and showed up late to a dinner at a restaurant. I don't know the details, but let's suppose he walks in, sits down and orders a beer. Then some girl he has seen the first time in his life gets up five minutes later to go to the bathroom, and she just leaves the restaurant.

Why in the world should Akal have to kick in money for her meal?

Ultimately I think the birthday girl should have assumed the payment, and then told the walk-out to pay her back. If it were a situation where, "Well, I know Tina, and I'll never see that money again," then I don't think it was an "accidental" walk-out either.
Bob, I don't think there's any sense in which you can determine what a specific person there should have done--whether it's Akal or the birthday girl. If Akal has no money to spare, then so be it. Someone else will pony up.

Maybe that person would be the birthday girl. But I would be quite embarrassed to attend my friend's birthday celebration, and sit by while she had to pay for someone else's meal. Even if Akal, himself, could not afford to intervene, surely someone else in the group could.

Having a conversation about contract liabilities, or trying to determine what the birthday girl should do, is--I think--making a category mistake. There can be no correct answer to these sorts of questions. Social norms are not that rigid.
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There are a few pertinent facts left out of the original post. 1) With the exception of the b-day girl, people were coming and going all night, loosely forming two shifts of friends. 2) Most people were on individual checks, totaling roughly 10 checks. 3) By the time the issue arose, only the b-day girl, a friend of hers, and I were left. None of us live in Nashville. The b-day girl and I were going to our respective home-cities the next day! 4) The b-day girl thought she had seen her friend pay. 5) The girl who walked out was reputable, had gone home to her kids, did not have her phone on, and lived in Nashville.

As to the dénouement: the b-day girl covered the check, called her friend the next day, found out that her friend had indeed paid cash, spoke with the same manager, and will now be reimbursed for the charge.

Stewart, Your comment begins by accepting without support the very premise I questioned. Anyways, I would rather be uncomfortable (embarrassed), disliked, and in the right than complacent, praised, and in the wrong. As to "selfish signals," Mother Teresa selfishly improved the lives of millions of impoverished Indians. You selfishly seek not to appear selfish. I selfishly refuse to suffer the consequences of another person's debts or sins. What's wrong with any of that?

Stayoncue, Great analogy! As in the case of pornography and free speech, however, that "rule of thumb" offends the notion that the rule of law rests upon objectively defined laws, crimes, procedures, and punishments. Without these, the rule of men (i.e., force) ensues. Here, the worst case scenario would just be the manager shifting his risks onto others as he pleases via an amorphous concept of "table."

Silas Barta, In the big picture, I think you're right: it didn't really matter. It certainly would have been a Pyrrhic victory. But you, too, have failed to examine or explain the table-as-entity assumption by beginning your reasoning with me trying "to get out of paying a bill." How is it my obligation in the first place? To answer your question, call me stubborn but the offense of principle is what was "so painful."

Anonymous, the 2nd, Thank you for beginning to address the table-as-entity issue. I agree that the hypo presented is metaphysically straightforward. Our situation, however, was not. To clarify, the first group of friends had left (including the walker-out), and the birthday girl was surrounded by an entirely new "set" of friends. Here, I think the concept of "party" starts to breakdown.

Wm, I think your strongest point is to characterize the assumption as a social convention. But you forfeit any consequent merit when you write with the austerity, certainty, and finality of an ethicist or rights-scholar. Your argument boils down to this: 1) The assumption is permitted by social convention, 2) Part of that order (assumption or convention?) is the concept of a "party" or "table." 3) Therefore, the party is responsible and owes the restaurant. Social convention once held that the word "Men" in the Declaration of Independence did not include black men. I am not persuaded.

Sonicninjakitty, I'll accept your apology... and a rain-check for that drink!

Bob Murphy, It sounds like the presence of the b-day girl is, for you, all that secures "the table's" obligation to the restaurant. If she had left and there were only late-comers like myself left, would you consider the restaurant eating the cost of the abandoned check?

Stewart (again), If this were just a matter of social norms, you might be right. But where an obligation was incurred and broken, I'd like to think your agnosticism is misplaced.
For the record, it was very embarrassing to have been financially unable to gracefully and quietly cover the check. And, although I like to think of it as optimistic, it was admittedly a bit silly to engage the manager in rational debate. To my credit, I said nothing else after he told me that "life is gray..." (see "The Cult of Moral Grayness" by Ayn Rand).

I am surprised, however, that no one has noted how this table-as-entity argument resembles the collectivist view of "society." Sure, a restaurant must safely assume that someone will cover the cost of the items ordered and served. In any case, however, there is some risk in making this assumption. If a party of one walks out, the risk is allocated to, and the loss is borne by, the restaurant. For self-declared parties of two or more, obligations may properly accumulate onto one check, and someone must pay for every item ordered by everyone in his party. But when someone sits down, says that he is on a separate check, incurs an obligation to pay, and then fails to do so; I don't see how the risk and obligation are properly shifted to anyone other than the restaurant. Any measure of familiarity or continuity of eating-surface between the defaulter and other persons present seems irrelevant. And an amorphous definition of "the table" provides an unsatisfactory excuse.
Akal, I hereby find you criminally clueless and sentence you to twenty additional appearances in social situations, to be completed within 30 days, because you clearly haven't been through enough of them to attain "well-adjusted" status. (Another sign that you're Doing It Wrong is that the judgment came from ME of all people.)

Look, no one's denying that the girl who (was believed to have) skipped is the one obligated to pay. The question is, who is obligated to *pursue* that claim. You want to shift the burden onto the restaurant, apparently expecting them to monitor every person who comes or goes, to find out if they're just going back to their car or to stand outside -- all while probably considering such behavior intrusive and -- wait for it -- not socially expected.

Even though the people at the table know better who is going where, you somehow consider the pursuit of the lost money "their [the restaurant's] problem". You believe this so strongly that you ACTUALLY got to the point of, in a very real sense, making a federal case out of a situation that has long been dealt with through strict trust-based social conventions. You believe this despite not even being able to notice the woman paying in cash!

Given this tradition's heavy basis in trust, it should be both parties' utmost priority to uphold their end. Coming up with excuses why "gosh, I guess she got away with a free meal -- not my fault -- tough luck, bro" shatters the very trust that allows you to eat before paying in the first place.

Again, when you're debating contract law with a restaurant manager, that should have been a major warning signal that you made a mistake somewhere.

And your claim about truly being broke? Again, evidence of cluelessness. If you're *really* that broke, what the hell are you doing in a restaurant in the first place? "Sorry, b-day girl, I can't make it; I can only afford to make meals from scratch these days."

It's almost like you *want* us to believe that this oopsie was a deliberate scam.

Now, let's start on that sentence, shall we?
Akal, I do apologize. Not knowing the details you later supplied, I jumped to a conclusion. The only subsequent advice I can offer is next time inform them you have 'only $20' on you and no credit card--they can't squeeze blood from a turnip! (That's just an expression--I'm not calling you a turnip, ha ha!) The party invitation giver always assumes final liability.

Cheers, kiddo--I owe you one. And PS--if this is how you analyze a restaurant tab, you are going to make an excellent lawyer. First thing after you graduate, would you please go after Goldman Sachs? Thanks!!
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