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The Ethicist
January 31, 2011

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Who Should Pay For a Laptop Damaged at a Party?

My son was playing music on his laptop for a dozen friends at a party in his college dorm suite. He was in another room when someone spilled a drink on the keyboard. The computer may need a new motherboard— $1,300 —and no one has come forward to take responsibility. Do you think the guests should share this cost, maybe $100 each?
R.G., Port Washington, New York

SO IF I'M in the room when someone breaks something, you think I have an obligation to cover repairs? Why not anybody in the building? On the campus? In the state?

The person who spilled the beverage onto the laptop is responsible for his own actions. But his silence does not shift his duty to whoever happened to be standing nearby.

Had this accident been caused by general, party-wide horseplay, or if, say, collective foot stompin' and hand clappin' shook the laptop onto the floor, then I would urge all present to chip in—but that was not the case.

If the other partygoers know who did the damage, they should tell your son. It would be wrong for friends—and guests—to withhold such information from one of their own. Incidentally, insurance covers contingencies like your son's; he might want to invest in some.

UPDATE: Technicians were able to repair the computer without replacing the motherboard.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 31, 2011)