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Shabbat Parashat Masei 5774

Ask the Rabbi: Is a Professional Believed About the Time He Put In?

Rabbi Daniel Mann

Question: I sent my computer to a technician to repair serious problems. He was unwilling to tell me his charge in advance, claiming it depended on how long it would take him, to which he would not commit. After fixing the computer, he charged me what I consider an exorbitant price. I am not sure I trust him on how much work he put in. Must I pay without making an issue of it?  

 

Answer: In all questions of this nature, we warn the querier that we cannot say anything conclusive after hearing only one side, as even two honest people can have different viewpoints of the same events. This is all the more so in this case in which you yourself are in the dark about what happened. While we often say that the two sides have to be heard in beit din or another permitted arbitrative setting, we cannot ignore your question – whether you should make an issue at all. Therefore, we will briefly discuss general sources and factors.

The client has the advantage In a disagreement between a client and a worker over the amount that was set for payment due to the rule that one who wants to extract payment requires proof (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 89:4). However, if the client is uncertain how much he owes, he should have to pay because he is unable to take the serious oath in which he is obligated (see ibid. 75:13). If he is incapable of knowing how much he has to pay, this logic does not apply (Shach, CM 75:54).

In work such as this, where it is clear that one is going to know how much time he put in and the other will not, the rules are somewhat different. Mishnayot regarding a particular agent who claims he made expenditures on behalf of another (Sh’vuot 45a) and a husband who made improvements in his wife’s field before divorce (Ketubot 79b) say that the plaintiff swears how much he spent and is reimbursed. The Mordechai (Ketubot 209), Maharik (10), and Rama (CM 91:3) understand this as a broad rule regarding claimants who know about the expenditures and defendants who do not – the claimant is believed to receive payment with an oath.

The above appears contradicted by the halacha that one who seeks reimbursement for expenditures due to unreasonable steps taken by his counterpart in litigation must prove how much he spent (Rama, CM 14:5). The S’ma (91:16) distinguishes between cases where the claimant worked for the benefit of the other side and where he acted against his will. The Shach (ibid. 23) distinguishes between cases where the defendant requested of the claimant to make the outlays and cases where he acted on his own accord. Part of the logic is that when Reuven asks Shimon to do something that deserves reimbursement without demanding proof from the outset, he in effect grants trust in the veracity of Shimon’s charge.

The obligation to pay wages is equivalent to that to pay expenses. In your case, the S’ma and Schach should agree that you should believe the person whom you authorized to work and bill you. Certain cases could arguably be exceptions. One is when you have strong grounds to believe he is lying (see Pitchei Teshuva, CM 91:4). Another is where the technician should have informed you when he figured out the extent of the cost, enabling you to decide whether it is worthwhile to have it fixed. (Often, he will not know until well into the process, when informing you is irrelevant. Furthermore, he can claim that you should have requested an update. Such matters change from case to case.)

It is generally best to research a professional’s reliability before you hire him and if you heard favorable reports, to trust him. While it is your prerogative to not use him in the future, refusing to pay in full is drastic. Some situations may lend themselves to expressing (in a mentchslach way) your displeasure and suggesting that your willingness to use him again depends on a reduction in price. There are so many unclear factors that it is hard to give firm advice as to what to do, and without hearing the other side, it is certainly wrong to attempt to tell you who is right.

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