The Dry Cleaner and the Gown

The female voice on the other end of the line sounded very familiar. Her voice was full of anger and disappointment. It took me a few minutes to discern what she was trying to communicate.

Once I identified the voice, I realized that it was that of a woman I knew well who is usually very rational. I also began to understand why she was so upset. Mrs. Stein had been expecting to wear a specific, elegant dress for a family simcha and had brought it to the dry cleaner to get it ready. While she was there, she pointed out some stubborn spots on the delicate fabric.

“The dry cleaner managed to remove the stubborn stains,” Mrs. Stein told me, “but my gown’s color washed out in the process! The gown is now absolutely unwearable!  I want the cleaner to pay for the damage in full!”

“I try not to judge a business dispute without hearing the other person’s side of the story,” I told her.

“That’s fine,” she responded. “I’ll ask the cleaner to call you up to explain his side of the story.”

“Are you willing to accept my ruling in this situation?” I asked her.

“Certainly!” she replied.

While awaiting the cleaner’s call, I reviewed the appropriate halachos. If someone hires a workman or artisan to process or repair an item and the workman damages it in the process, he is obligated to pay for its full value and he does not receive payment for his work (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 306:2; 3). As an example of this halacha, the Mishnah discusses the case of someone hired to dye cloth who left the cloth too long in the dye vat and damaged the cloth. The dyer must pay for the value of the cloth he ruined (Mishnah Bava Kamma 100b).

OTHER EXAMPLES

If you hired a builder to demolish a property, and specified that you want to reuse the stones in the subsequent reconstruction, if the builder destroyed building stones in the process, he must repay the value of the stones (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 306:2).

If you hire a carpenter to repair a cabinet, and the carpenter breaks it, he must pay for the damage (Rambam, Hilchos Sechirus 10:4; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 306:2).

Therefore if the cleaner damaged the gown, he is indeed responsible to compensate Mrs. Stein for its full value. This is assuming that the cleaner has no notice posted in his shop that he is not responsible for garments that he damages. According to halacha, if the repairman notified his clients in advance that he does not assume responsibility for damage, he absolves himself of responsibility.

THE CLEANER VERSION

The dry cleaner’s phone call interrupted my research. His version of the events was somewhat different from Mrs. Stein’s.

“Mrs. Stein pointed out the stains she wanted removed,” he told me. “In retrospect, I regret that I did not specify to her that the solvents used to remove the stains could change the gown’s color. I do not remember whether the garment was wearable with the stains or not, but I know that people do not usually leave stains on their nice garments.”

“Was the garment ruined?” I asked the cleaner. “Not at all,” he answered, “I am willing to show it to any expert on women’s clothes. We saw the stains and assessed that the best way to remove them was to clean the entire garment evenly with a specific solvent. This is a standard procedure in this type of situation. When you dry clean this way, if the color is affected, the entire garment changes to a consistent new color. I would love to show you the garment to see the masterpiece we created!”

The dry cleaner’s interpretation of events had us dealing with a very different shaylah! He contended that he used his best professional judgment in removing the stain, and the result was an altered, but perfectly satisfactory and useful garment. According to this understanding, he is entitled to full compensation for his efforts since he did what Mrs. Stein hired him to do and there was no damage to the gown, according to him, but rather, an improvement!

I now found myself in a predicament. I knew this dry cleaner well, and as far as I know, he was a very reputable person. Although he could have been covering up for his mistake, I had no reason to suspect him. On the other hand, Mrs. Stein was also a person I respected; a tremendous baalas chesed – the classic “pillar of the community.” Should I suspect that one of them is not telling the truth?

The fact that I heard two very different versions of the events from the two parties did not mean that either one of them was, G-d forbid, lying or dishonest. Each of them saw the events that transpired his or her own way. This is human nature; we tend to see and color events through our own eyes, regardless of the fact that someone else’s interpretation may vary considerably from ours.

This is the reason why it is very important for every person to have a good friend who gently challenges our assumptions. It is difficult, and maybe even impossible, for us to be objective about ourselves. A good friend can help us regain our objectivity when we become emotionally wrapped up in ourselves. In this case, if Mrs. Stein had asked a good friend for an honest evaluation, perhaps the friend could have helped her calm down. Similarly, the dry cleaner may have benefited by having someone point out to him that his interpretation of the events and facts may have been somewhat flawed.

Although this helped me understand the human side of the dry cleaning interaction that took place, it did not help me establish the facts. The question still remained – did the cleaner damage the gown or not?

There was indeed one other possibility, that both sides were right. The dry cleaner did what he thought was best, which was to clean the gown even though its color might fade slightly. However to Mrs. Stein, this result was unacceptable. It is possible that had she been told that her gown might fade she would have rejected this method of dealing with the problem.

If so, a third set of halachos applies – where the artisan did perfectly good work, but it was not what he was hired to do and not what you want. Perhaps our case is comparable to the case in the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 100b) of someone who hired a worker to dye cloth red and he dyed it black.

In that case, the resultant product is worth more than it was when he started, but the owner did not want black cloth, just as Mrs. Stein did not want a faded gown.

Does the worker receive compensation in this case? Is he liable for all damages?

The above mentioned Mishnah cites a dispute about someone who hired a worker to dye cloth red and he dyed it black. Rabbi Meir rules that the worker pays the hirer for his cloth and keeps it, regardless of whether the finished product is worth more or less than the original cloth. Rabbi Yehudah disagrees, contending that this arrangement benefits the negligent worker too much. Let us assume that the finished black cloth is worth far more than the original un-dyed cloth was worth. According to Rabbi Meir, the dyer would benefit from all this profit. Rabbi Yehudah contends that this is unfair – the worker should not benefit from his negligence. Instead, Rabbi Yehudah contends that any benefits go to the owner, and this is the final halacha. (The actual formula whereby we determine how much, if anything, the worker gets paid is somewhat halachically complicated, see Rambam and Raavad, Hilchos Sechirus 10:4; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 303:6.)

Thus, we now have three possible interpretations of what happened.

1. The dry cleaner ruined the garment and should pay damages (Mrs. Stein’s version).

2. The cleaner did the best possible job possible under the circumstances and made an unusable gown perfectly usable. Therefore, Mrs. Stein should pay him in full (the dry cleaner’s version).

3. That the cleaner exceeded what Mrs. Stein authorized him to do, in which case he would be entitled only to whatever increase in value there is. According to Mrs. Stein, there is none, the gown is not worth more than it was in its stained but un-faded phase.

But I am a rabbi and not a prophet. What was I to do? How could I possibly determine what happened?

Furthermore, there was a more important issue at stake. Whenever I am involved in these types of litigation, I am not satisfied to simply determine the halacha, but I want the two parties to leave b’shalom. To me, this is the most important result – that there should be no lasting ill feeling afterwards.

I thought of a course of action that would accomplish this purpose. First, I asked my wife if she would be willing to look at Mrs. Stein’s gown to see whether she considered the garment un-wearable. Of course I realized that although I value my wife’s opinion, she was not going to make the final halachic decision. However, I was looking to see what she thought and consequently which direction I might take in resolving this shaylah.

In truth, this was the most difficult part of the shaylah. How was I to determine whether the gown was now ruined goods or not? For one woman a garment may be un-wearable and to another it could be perfectly fine. The halacha in such a dispute places the burden of proof on the person who wants to collect the money.

I also asked my wife the following question, after first explaining to her that there was a halachic reason why I needed the information (and therefore no loshon hora was involved). I asked her, “Is Mrs. Stein the type of woman who would be bothered by things that others would not notice?” My wife answered that Mrs. Stein is a very discerning dresser. Thus, I realized that it might be that even if the dry cleaner did what most people would consider the correct course of action, Mrs. Stein would not be happy with the results. On the other hand, it might be that the dry cleaner assumed that the garment was fine, but most people would consider it damaged.

Then I called Mrs. Stein to see if she would mind showing the damage to my wife. My wife felt that although the gown was definitely faded, most women would have worn the garment as is, although a discerning dresser like Mrs. Stein might find the new color unacceptable.

I called the dry cleaner and asked him whether he would be willing to bend over backwards to placate a customer.

“Of course,” he responded, “I never gain anything from an angry customer. Do you know how many people might hear a story like this?”

I assured him that I would try my utmost to be sure that Mrs. Stein obeyed the rules of loshon hora. She is a very fine woman and meticulously observant of halacha.

Mrs. Stein agreed to come to my office to discuss the matter. First I engaged her in some small talk, and then moved the conversation over to the matter at hand. I knew Mrs. Stein to be a woman who was cautious of loshon hora. I just hoped that she did not forget to be careful while she had been so agitated about her damaged gown.

Indeed, she told me that she had told only one person, other than me, about the ruined gown. She had deliberately decided to tell a friend who does not know where she takes her dry cleaning so that there would be no loshon hora problem. I was extremely impressed about her care in observing halacha under this highly stressful circumstance.

Baruch Hashem, there had been no loshon hora said about this matter. Now to make shalom

I explained to her that I had spoken to the dry cleaner, and that he regretted having not asked her before he used the particular cleaning solution. I also told her that he had used it evenly on the entire garment so that if it would discolor the garment it would leave it in a pretty shade. I then added that I felt the dry cleaner was not guilty from a halachic point of view, but that he was eager to make some restitution anyway because he did not want her to be angry with him.

Mrs. Stein stopped and thought about it. “You know, he has always been so accommodating. I was just surprised and disappointed by him. I suppose not everyone is as fussy as I am. I would be very satisfied if he would make sure to hang up a note to himself in his shop to make sure that he asks every customer before he does something like this again!!”

I had not expected that making shalom would be so easy. I guess that sometimes when you try to do a mitzvah, Hashem makes it easier! And my wife tells me that Mrs. Stein wore a different outfit to the simcha, which was absolutely stunning.

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