30 Dec 2009

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

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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?


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