Q – I frequently use a 10-trip punch card on the LIRR. Often the conductor fails to appear to punch the card before I get off. What is my obligation here? Should I tear up the card before it runs out to make up the difference or am I free to use it again as it is the responsibility of the railroad to collect the fare? This does not involve deception since I am ready to pay the fare. I think this falls into the category of an uncollected debt. How much trouble is the borrower required to go through to repay if he makes a good faith effort and the lender for whatever reason isn’t seeking it. I have been doing "the right thing" and throwing it away early. Lately I have been thinking it might be OK to use it and give the equivalent sum to charity, as if it is "found money."
A – True, you did not deceive anyone, but that is no reason to pat yourself on the back. It’s not that different from a guy who sneaks into a second movie at the Cineplex on a single ticket and then puts a few guilt-assuaging bucks in the charity basket when they pass it around. The only difference here is that you are being a little more passive in accepting the freebie.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 232:2) states that if you are given excess change in error, it must be returned. Sometimes it is not easy to locate the owner, but in this case there’s no problem in locating the true owner of that money – the railroad. The free trip is not the conductor’s to give away. This is similar to a prior “Hammerman on Ethics” case in which an employee at a coffee shop gave a customer free coffee at her boss’s expense.The coffee was not hers to give away. In this case, it is possible that the conductor is lazy, but more likely he is frazzled, overwhelmed at rush hour.
You might want to express some empathy next time around and hold up your ticket and say, “I know things are crazy right now and wanted to be sure you don’t forget me.” Who knows, his supervisor might be sitting a few rows away, counting heads. You could save his job.
Your charity idea is an interesting one, but here it would not be your donation. The LIRR would be donating the cost of a single fare to charity, not you. So if you did it, make sure to send them a tax receipt.
In the future, simply throw the ticket away after all the trips are legitimately used up and buy a new one for your next trip.