A Volunteer Messenger’s Responsibility

Who is responsible for a package? The sender or the volunteer messenger who carries it? Do they perhaps have a joint responsibility? This issue has led to quite a number of arguments between me and my wife over the years, and we still haven’t resolved it.

Here’s the deal. Let’s say that Jenny’s in bed with a cold and asks her partner Anne to take out a book for her from the library. This Anne does, but on the way home she loses the book. Maybe she absentmindedly puts it on a shelf in the grocery store and it gets stolen, or she forgets to close her backpack and the book falls into an open manhole along the way. Who pays the library for the lost book?

  1. Sender pays. One of us feels that if Jenny isn’t willing to do her own running, then she has to accept that her unpaid messenger is only human, and thus error-prone. Jenny should pay. An optional generous thing for Anne to do here is to offer to share the expense.
  2. Volunteer messenger pays. One of us feels that by accepting the task, Anne accepts responsibility, and that it would be childish for Anne to expect Jenny to pay for the book. Anne should pay. Indeed, anything else would mean that Anne abdicated from the status of dependable adult, and should be ashamed of herself.

I once ran this question by a group of Swedish on-line acquaintances and found that the ones who agreed with me were a) somewhat in the minority, b) on the whole less likeable than the rest from my point of view. Dear Reader, what’s your take on the issue?

Update 2 April: In addition to many thoughtful comments below by readers, Janet over at Adventures in Ethics and Science kindly devotes an entire blog entry to this highly controversial issue.


45 thoughts on “A Volunteer Messenger’s Responsibility

  1. Legally, whoever’s name is on the library records pays.

    Morally, I will probably end up disagreeing with most people, because I think moral responsibility is not zero sum. People often act like it is – they think they can deflect blame for something by putting it on somebody else (see pretty much any politician or CEO). But I think that’s BS. Everybody is 100% responsible for their business, and 0% responsible for other peoples’, and the fact that responsibility for a situation adds up to a lot more than 100% is irrelevant.

    It is, for example, entirely possible to blame regulators 100% for going too easy on banks, and at the same time blame bankers 100% for exploiting the situation.

    So personally, I think they’re both responsible. How they choose to divide up the dollars and cents is secondary.


  2. On an abstract level, I would have to say it’s the Volunteer messenger who should pay – it was she who lost the libraries book, and in volunteering had accepted the normal life risk of something like this happening. (Of course, if there was some circumstance that made Anne more likely to lose the book than an average person, and Jenny knew of that, Jenny would share part of the responsibility.)

    On a pragmatic level, I think Anne and Jenny shouldn’t get into a huge argument over such a trivial matter, and share the cost of replacing the book.


  3. It depends. If Jenny convinced Anne to get the book even if Anne didn’t want to, then it’s Jenny that pays. If however Anne offered to do it, then she seized responsibility and thus she pays. Or they could just split the difference, go home and get it on.


  4. And you call yourself a Swede: Anne tells Jenny what happened and offers to pay because it is her fault and she feels bad for Jenny. Jenny refuses the offer because Anne is more important than a money or a stupid book. The argument continues, with each party insisting on paying until a settlement is reached where Jenny pays the library and Anne buys dinner as an apology. Both pay. Amity is restored, pride is intact, and the couple enjoys a nice dinner.


  5. OK then, I blame Anne, unless, as Phillip IV put it, “there was some circumstance that made Anne more likely to lose the book than an average person, and Jenny knew of that”.


  6. Okay, I think I’ve got this figured out:

    – Anne should apologize profusely, and insist on paying the charges, while simultaneously mentioning her mounting bills and lousy job situation. She should also say things like, “I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe I let you down like this.” She should appear on the verge of tears.

    – Jenny should then gallantly say, “No, I checked out the book. I’m responsible for the charges. Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t worry about it.”

    – Anne should then accept Jenny’s counteroffer too quickly, and promise to “make it up to you somehow,” perhaps with an offer to cook Jenny a special dinner.

    – Jenny should begin to harbor resentment at Anne’s ineptness and irresponsibility.

    – Anne should notice for the first time how petty and vindictive Jenny can be sometimes.

    – The promised dinner should never happen.

    – Jenny and Anne should slowly drift apart.


  7. Kevin, what part of Sweden is that? (-;

    Paddy, Anne certainly isn’t clinically retarded. Perhaps you mean that if someone chooses to cohabit with a clumsy and absentminded person, then they automatically assume a greater part of the responsibility for practical matters than their partner?


  8. 1. You haven’t told us your own opinion.
    2. You haven’t told us whether this actually happened.
    3. You’re not Swiss.
    4. It’s April 1.
    5. Messenger pays.


  9. Well, it depends on the partnership. If it is financially close, you both are damaged by the loss as a unit, and should pay out of pooled funds.

    If it isn’t that close, I’d say loser pays, up to some amount that sort of depends on the situation and the partnership. See Out Of Africa: Lose a friend over a book

    Maybe turn the question around and make the delivery the return back to the library, so it is definitely Jenny’s book and Anne is delivering it back to avoid a late fee.

    Jenny is responsible to the library because the book is loaned on her account. Anne is acting as an agent for Jenny in returning the book.

    Jenny is responsible to the library for the book, and should make sure that she makes the library whole. If Jenny chooses an unreliable Anne, then it certainly isn’t the library’s fault.

    Anne’s responsibility to Jenny is the value of her reliability. I’d say Anne should be on the hook for just as much as she would be if she borrowed a generic book from Jenny and lost it.

    If the package is worth more than it would seem, (like a rare first-edition book, or picking up Jenny’s daughter’s wedding dress from the dry-cleaner right before the wedding,) Jenny should warn Anne of its value prior to the task, and if Anne isn’t willing to take responsiblity for that value, she shouldn’t accept the task.

    This could get ugly quickly, if Jenny and Anne tried to negotiate just how much their partnership is worth to each other.


  10. I’ll say this much, and those who know us can do the math: me and my wife each advocate the philosophy that tends to minimise our own personal money loss from this kind of event.


  11. If I was Jenny I’d pay the library, and if I was Anny I’d pay Jenny. Because I’m buying my place in heaven.

    But HP got it right.


  12. I would say that Jenny is the primary liable person in your scenario, but that Anne, if she values the relationship at all, might well share some of the cost. After all, that’s how you keep friends and partners! A bit of give and take is needed…


  13. Sender pays. The sender is asking for help and entrusting the volunteer with the book, and should not burden the volunteer with additional expense after having them work for the sender for free.

    That being said, if I was the volunteer and it was a great deal of cost, I would be extremely sorry and attempt to help out. However, I would be under no obligation to help, and if I was the sender, I would not imply that the volunteer should help pay.


  14. ICBLF, it appears that Jenny’s argument is that a person who can’t reliably be entrusted with simple errands doesn’t quite count as an adult.
    History shows that event the most responsible of people occasionally fail in the simplest of tasks. So the appropriate counter to Jenny’s argument is that it’s uncharitable to expect *anyone* to be perfectly reliable, and it’s probably childish to ask someone to help you and then ask them to pay when they fail to be adequate help.


  15. ICBLF, it appears that Jenny’s argument is that a person who can’t reliably be entrusted with simple errands doesn’t quite count as an adult.

    I wouldn’t call it “not counting as an adult”, but I’d agree somewhat — If Anne isn’t going to be careful with Jenny’s stuff, and doesn’t feel at least somewhat responsible ($$$) for things in her possession, Jenny is right not to trust Anne with her stuff.

    If Anne accidently destroyed the book, without the “volunteer messenger’s” agreement, wouldn’t Anne feel more responsible? If so, maybe Anne deserves only a discount of responsibility equivalent to the value of the volunteer messenger service.


  16. They both relocate to Denmark for a few years, to get new social security numbers. When they move back, they get new library cards without any connection to their old ones.
    The library is getting tired of all the people moving to Denmark and back, realizes that the whole dead-tree-thing is getting old, scans their complete collection and uploads it to The Pirate Bay.
    The anti-pirates stage a book burning in protest, sets fire to nine usb-keys loaded with mostly trash literature.
    Jenny cooks dinner to compensate for the years in Denmark (and the joy of being able to copy and paste from the book).
    Anne pays for the food though.


  17. Anne pays.
    Now it’s time for you to say if you agree or if I am less likeable than the totally misguided people laying the cost on Jenny.


  18. Both are responsible. A volunteer sshould be given all of tghe tools need to do the job. The coordinator should be able to trust the volunteer to do the job corectly. When it failes bopth are responsible and should be accountable.


  19. The holder of the library card is the responsible party for the cost of the book.

    They wanted the book and to get the book they decided to recruit a messenger. In selecting a messenger they were supposed to find one with sufficient maturity and responsibility to get the job done reliably. They failed to find a suitable messenger. Perhaps they overestimated the maturity of the person selected.

    This may be further indicated because the person was doing the job for free. Possibly, in terms of transaction, in return for the respect and validation from a respected authority figure. A mature person, mature enough to do the job, would extract some sort of compensation. Either monetary remuneration or agreement of favors owed or other tacit agreement.

    The messenger was insufficiently mature and responsible to do the job. They were human. Fallible. The person wanting the book, in effect, selected the lowest bidder. Someone that would do it for a wink and smile. Not even an implied agreement that they would be owed a favor.

    The person asking for the book should pay for it and apologize to the messenger for asking for more than they could deliver. Then, entirely at the messenger’s discretion, and only to salvage their self-respect, the messenger might pay half. If the person requesting the book has any dignity they should donate this sum to charity, contribute to a cause the messenger is involved with or otherwise disgorge the money in some way that does not directly benefit them.

    I see this sort of thing a lot. A trainee looks up to an old hand. The old hand asks them to do a job they are not ready for. Out of respect and not wanting to disappoint the senior person they figure they can wing it. They often imagine they can do the job.

    When the trainee gets in over their head the project fails and cost rise. The authority, loath to admit their mistake and accept the cost, blames the trainee.


  20. Said John P: A volunteer should be given all of the tools need to do the job.

    What tools would you wish to be given in order to be able to safely take a book from the library to your home?

    Art, your comments seem to suggest that you believe that Anne is Jenny’s pre-teen daughter. She is not. They are cohabiting adults.


  21. Having tried not to prejudice myself by reading the existing comments, my thoughts on the matter immediately split along the lines of “legally” and “morally”.

    If we presume that Anne used Jenny’s library card (some libraries are fine with this, some are not but let us presume that this specific library is A-OK withthe practise), Jenny would be the person-on-record for the book and would therefore be legally responsible for any fines.

    Morally, however, I think the correct course would be for Anne to say “Jenny, I messed up and lost your book; as and when the library sends you the fine, talk to me and I will pay for it, because it is my fault, not yours”. However, the actual dividing up of the kronor and ören doesn’t really matter that much, because after Anne’s admittance of guilt I think Jenny responding “thank you! I will!” and “don’t worry, you were running an errand for me, so I should pay it” are both equally valid.


  22. Erin deleted her entry on the Page 3.14 blog, and so I thought it civil to do likewise. It would have looked kind of weird to criticise a blog entry that was no longer there. I take it we’ll see no more promotion of the Armed with Science podcast from Sb’s editors.


  23. I think Anne should be responsible. She is an adult and has lost something entrusted to her care. I know if I lost or broke something my husband or a friend had trusted me with I would feel responsible. OTOH if a friend had said that yes she could return a book for me and was distressed at loosing it, I would probably tell her not to worry about it.

    OTOOH a friend borrowed a large stock pot from me a few months ago, for jam-making. I’m not sure if one of her kids tipped it sideways and sat on it or what happened, but the pot was bent and the rim tore (it was a very cheap, thin one). When she returned it she also gave me a replacement one, which I accepted with thanks. If she had returned mine and said “err, it got damaged, I’ll get you a new one”, I would have told her not to stress over it, forgotten about it, and had a nice surprise when she did replace it.

    If my husband lost something, the financial responsibility would be irrelevant because we have shared bank accounts, and no separate ones.

    I don’t think the name Peter Pan is quite right for your wife, Martin, but I have certainly used it on my husband many times.


  24. Here’s my take on the moral (as opposed to legal) question:

    Anne’s act, at Jenny’s bedside, of undertaking to bring home the book may be a generous and voluntary one — but once the undertaking has been made, honouring it is not a matter of generosity or volition: it’s a matter of duty. That’s what “undertaking” means. In this case, honouring the undertaking means producing the book, or, failing that, its monetary equivalent. Anne pays.


  25. if I were Anne, I’d pay.
    if I were Jenny, I’d expect Anne to pay. Should this not happen I’d re-adjust my expectations so it would only be a problem the first time. Anything for a quiet life..


  26. Martin R – “Art, your comments seem to suggest that you believe that Anne is Jenny’s pre-teen daughter. She is not. They are cohabiting adults.”

    Age has little to do with it. Some people are just not reliable in some jobs. You foolishly relied on someone to do a job they couldn’t/wouldn’t do. They may improve in time and with effort but in this case the damage is done and now you owe the library a book.

    In essence you hired without any contract someone to fulfillment of the terms of an agreement between yourself and the library. The person you selected is/was unable/unwilling, for whatever reason, to to do the job.

    If you took your car in for an oil change and the mechanic forgot to put oil back in and your engine was destroyed you would go to the owner of the garage for a new engine. You wouldn’t even talk to the mechanic.

    The mechanic would have to settle up with the garage owner in a completely separate transaction. He might be fired or retrained. Most labor laws rightfully say the owner can’t legally force the mechanic pay for the repairs. It was the owners job to make sure the mechanic was capable and willing to do the job correctly. the mechanic is only responsible to make their best effort to do the job correctly. Inevitably they will sometimes fail. This is the cost of doing business. Part of being human and using humans to do work.

    The age of the mechanic, the functionary, would not have anything to do with it.

    Same situation. Your personal relationship with the messenger shouldn’t have anything to do with it. If you try to leverage your relationship to guilt them in to paying your going to see problems down the road as the resentment comes back at you. Accept your failure and responsibility to the library for the cost of the book, and move on.


  27. I don’t understand the argument that ‘she was doing a favor so it isn’t Anne’s responsibility’. No. She offered to do a favor, but then didn’t actually do it. Losing a book is not a favor, and receives no consideration. If Anne had failed to get around to taking the book back and got a fine for late return, that would be bad enough but to lose it? Good thing Anne didn’t borrow your car to get you some medicine and turn back up with no medicine and she misplaced the car. Sorry, your fault.


  28. I enjoy this blog immensely but I never anticipated to see legal issues crop up like this.

    Although I find a lot of sense in the answers provided so far; especially the ones based on moral ground, but allow me provide the “correct” answer according to Swedish law. I assume that Swedish law applies.

    It is obvious that Jenny is liable towards the library. The library cannot make any claim on Anne. So Jenny will have to pay compensation to the library.

    According to the Swedish Commercial Code of 1736, Chapter 18, Anne has accepted to perform the task of delivering the book to the library and is also obliged to compensate Jenny for any damage caused to her due to Anne’s negligence. Thus, Anne has to pay Jenny the amount Anne had to pay to the library. I would consider the two examples provided in the question as negligent acts by Anne.

    If, on the other hand, the actions of Anne are not considered as negligent, she is not responsible and Jenny, as the code states, “should blame herself for lack of better foresight”.

    Unfortunately the language of the provisions is archaic being 270 years old and no translation by me will give you the right feeling. For those readers who understand Swedish the following excerpts may be enjoyable(?):

    18 kap. Om sysslomän eller ombudsmän
    1 § Varder man av annan ombuden, att å dess vägnar något syssla och uträtta, och säger där ja till; tage fullmakt, och ligge där sedan hans vårdnad å; göre ock redo och besked för det han om händer får.
    4 § Haver någon fått fullmakt, att för annan göra och låta, och tager den skada därav, som fullmakt gav; skylle sig själv, som sig ej bättre föresåg. Är ombudsman av försummelse, eller svek, vållande till skadan; plikte då han, som sagt är.


  29. Thanks Krister, that’s beautiful legalese!

    So in the law’s eyes, the issue of who pays boils down to whether Anne was negligent or not.

    I believe Jenny’s view is more like “No matter what random calamities may befall me, I take pride in being the kind of person who will assume full responsibility, and I look down on anyone with lower standards.”


  30. as a matter of moral theory, i’d say volunteer messenger pays. said messenger is a responsible adult and a moral agent, thus knows s/he is taking on the responsibility for either delivering the message safely or else making good their mistake.

    as a matter of everyday politeness, of course, it’s only decent for the sender to offer to share the liability to at least some degree. how large a degree, i guess, the parties have to sort out between themselves, keeping in mind they’re trying to stay on good terms with one another. but if we’re assuming the messenger is morally competent, then that is who needs bear the primary ethical responsibility for the job, since they took it on knowingly and they made the (admittedly, human) mistake.

    as a matter of law, Krister and Dave X make far better arguments than i could.


  31. This is a question of agency. Absent other arrangements (e.g. Jenny knows Anne is an airhead and is always losing things but asks anyway) Anne is acting in Jenny’s place and has a responsibility to exercise the same care and caution that Jenny would. It is certainly possible that Anne exercised extraordinary care and caution, more than Jenny would, and Shit Still Happens.

    Placing blame on Anne in that case is just perverse.

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t lend itself to a black-and-white solution, but a third party who knew them both might see where Anne had made an error that Jenny had herself made before.

    My own take is that, as with most things in human relations, it is best to extend to others more slack than we expect from them. Given the imperfect Universe we live in, that may not be enough but it’s certainly a minimum for amicable life.


  32. In my experience, when I’m playing Jenny sick in bed, I end up paying full cost for any and all mistakes any of my proxies make while replacing me. When I’m up and helping out somebody else who is down sick, thus pretending I’m Anne, I also pay full cost for any and all mistakes I make as that person’s replacement, because I don’t want that person to suffer from me having made a mistake. So the REAL answer to “who pays?” in my life is ME. Regardless. I believe it’s called life.


  33. Anne and Jenny call one another names. Jenny accuses Anne of being immature and irresponsible, Anne accuses Jenny of being unforgiving, rigid, and a perfectionist.

    Wine is drunk, to excess. Voices are raised, perhaps a small, inexpensive object is thrown against a wall. The argument reaches a crescendo, leading to several hours of explosive hot sex.

    In the morning, the book is not mentioned. In fact, the book is not mentioned again until June 2023, at which time Anne uses this incident as an example of Jenny’s long-standing and incorrigible rigidity and perfectionism in a massive fight over the details associated with their daughter’s wedding.

    However, in the present, whichever partner happens to open the letter from the library notifying of the overdue book pays for it, hiding the bill from her partner.

    Scene ends.

    Coda: In the fight in June, 2023, both claim to have been the one to have paid for the book.


  34. Ho hum. Doing this after only skimming the responses and not looking at the background info.

    Dumb situation to be in. I’m going to go with two different answers.

    1. Anne pays. Personal responsibility is everything. She took on the responsibility Jenny had to deliver the book. Mitigating circumstances: Robbed, book stolen, book lost due to circumstances out of her control – assisting at an accident scene/in an accident etc.

    This doesn’t actually solve any relationship quandaries though. Therefore solution #2 this one assumes a relatively balanced relationship – income, commitment etc. If it’s vastly imbalanced then other issues come to the forefront and a practical solution is harder to describe.

    2. Anne pays, and apologizes. Jenny refuses to accept the payment. They settle paying some percentage each. Ideally according to means. Depending on the kind of relationship and/or personal codes of behaviour Anne may pay the additional cost by means of a favour, cash at a later point or other means – in keeping with the kind of relationship and previous agreements/conflict resolutions.


    If you are unable to solve this kind of issues in a romantic relationship you might as well call it quits, these are the kind of things that are hashed out while you’re dating. If the relationship is purely a co-habiting this becomes ridiculously clear cut, answer #1 all the way.


  35. If you are unable to solve this kind of issues in a romantic relationship you might as well call it quits

    Haha, me and my wife are celebrating our first decade of romantic bedroom-centric involvement in June, but on the point of the volunteer messenger’s responsibility we still don’t agree! Just recently we asked a friend of ours to mail a Netflix DVD for us, she promptly lost the DVD, and we disagreed completely on whether the friend should have offered to pay the fee or not. (She didn’t offer to.)


  36. Martin, slight difference there. A third party losing your (collective) stuff vs. one of the partners in the relationship losing the other partner’s stuff. Solving it vs. 3rd parties isn’t necessary as that, if you are being pragmatic, can be done on a case-to-case basis. Your friend was rude not offering to pay, asking her to pay, which may be perceived as rude (although a good friend is one who would take personal responsibility in my mind) is a function of how much you value personal responsibility vs. that friendship vs. money and both of you may have different values for all of the three factors.

    Solving it for how you deal with such things within your own household, i.e. in the case where one partner loses something belonging to the other or kids losing stuff, is important enough that it needs a functional and regular solution. It’s not only relevant to losing stuff, but any large irregular expense caused by an individual’s lack of care or responsibility or other interpersonal situations. Other examples of the same issue: Traffic fines, speeding tickets, back taxes, fines, cost of prostitutes in or website subscriptions when one partner is unable to provide relations in the long term.

    I’ll stop here before I start over-analyzing things even more. I am curious as to which of you two holds which point of view and why.


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