Help me understand the legal status of a refund that was mistakenly sent to me.
September 30, 2011 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the legal status of a refund that was mistakenly sent to me.

The scenario is this: I bought a large piece of furniture from a well-known (and large) furniture company. For various reasons, the delivery of this furniture was delayed for weeks and at one point a representative of the company called and offered an (undisclosed) rebate for the inconvenience.

I agreed this was a good idea since I had already paid for the item. The item was eventually delivered, but then a few weeks later a check arrived in the mail for the full price. This was a mistake on their part obviously and I called them up to set it straight.

But, I am curious to know the legal ramifications of the path I did not take. What if I had deposited the check? (It was a large amount, around $1500). What position does the law take on this? There was no documentation with the check or any supplementary information or reason for why I was receiving it.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANYL. The answer is it depends on the state (although most states probably have similar provisions). In New York it would be a larceny (the degree would depend on the amount), the relevant penal law provision:

PL 155.05 Larceny; defined

1. A person steals property and commits larceny when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof.

2. Larceny includes a wrongful taking, obtaining or withholding of another's property, with the intent prescribed in subdivision one of this section, committed in any of the following ways:...

(b) By acquiring lost property.

A person acquires lost property when he exercises control over property of another which he knows to have been lost or mislaid, or to have been delivered under a mistake as to the identity of the recipient or the nature or amount of the property, without taking reasonable measures to return such property to the owner;
posted by Mr. X at 1:51 PM on September 30, 2011

I'm not a lawyer, but I believe your intent matters. If you had honestly thought that the check was sent to you as payment for your inconvenience and not as a refund for not getting the furniture, you wouldn't be committing a crime. I say this because it reminds me of that case where the guy cashed one of those "fake" checks- it cleared, and the guy was never guilty of any crime because he never actually thought it would work and was not attempting to defraud anyone.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 1:59 PM on September 30, 2011

There's the law in theory, and the law in practice. In practice there is little likelihood that a company that sends you a check by accident will catch the error and then pester you for it. If they actually did, and you then said, "Oh, fine, here ya go," then it is hard to imagine a situation in which a court or a cop or a d.a. would consider that a crime had been committed.

But it's nice to know that you were honest about it. You probably made some people feel very good about the honesty of other people. Good on you.
posted by musofire at 2:04 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something similar happened to someone I know, on a larger scale. He sold some property, and at the end of escrow the money was wired -- twice, accidentally -- into his bank account. He chose to interpret that as an error that did not require any action on his part. Eventually he was convicted in criminal court and sentenced to jail. By that time, the money had been spent. YMMV.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:09 PM on September 30, 2011

What does "undisclosed" mean? Does that mean you never agreed on an amount? If so, I don't think a rebate of the whole price is that unheard of. I've certainly been reimbursed the whole cost of goods or services in bad situations before as a customer service move when they wanted to keep my business. (Although they were much smaller than $1500.) So if you didn't know what to expect, receiving an amount up to the full price isn't unreasonable to me. I would, of course, return the amount immediately if asked.
posted by grouse at 2:11 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

They said they would send you a rebate. They did. I don't see any problem here. Big companies usually have pretty stringent internal controls when it comes to dispersing cash. I'd say it's just as likely that the meant to refund your money. They screwed up, didn't didn't deliver as promised, and made amends. For all you know, they have insurance or squeezed the shipping company and are being made whole on the deal anyway.

If you are really worried, put the money into a savings account and forget about for a year. Then spend it.
posted by COD at 4:15 PM on September 30, 2011

You hold the difference between the rebate and the full purchase price as implied constructive trustee for the vendor. To be clear, some of that money is not legally yours.

Now the rub for the vendor is going to be establishing the sum of the rebate. I would stick the sum in a savings account in case they ask for some of the money back. At that point you'll need to negotiate on what the rebate sum was in point of fact. You want a high number, they a low one. It becomes a purely commercial matter at that point. Whether they try to recover some of the money is another question altogether.

I am a lawyer but not yours and not in your jurisdiction. This is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Obtain independent legal advice.
posted by dmt at 10:04 PM on September 30, 2011

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