Q. I got separated from my group on a tour, but succeeded in finding a resourceful cab driver who got me back promptly. In the meantime, two group members spent a large amount on cab drivers trying to find me. Do I have to pay them back?
A. You face a common situation: a well-meaning but unsolicited helper who wants to be paid back for his efforts on your behalf.
Jewish law strongly emphasizes the importance of coming to the help of our fellow human being, and does enable the rescuer to recoup his costs. However, there are certain conditions on this recompense to avoid putting an unfair burden on the person being helped.
The Talmud discusses the case of a person whose donkey is swept into the river. A bystander who is able to help save the donkey is definitely obligated to do so. This is a fulfillment of the commandment to return lost objects, as well as the mandate not to stand idly by when we can save our fellow man from danger or loss: “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood”(Leviticus 19:16).
If there is unusual effort that a person would normally pay for, the owner of the donkey is obligated to pay the rescuer whatever is the usual pay for this kind of work. But this payment is dependent on certain conditions:
1. If the owner asks the bystander to help and offers payment, then he has to pay even if the bystander’s efforts are ultimately unsuccessful.
2. Conversely, if the bystander is actually successful in effecting a rescue, then the owner has to pay even if the effort was unsolicited, as long as the kind of efforts he invested are commensurate with what is usual in such a situation.
3. In any case, the amount owed is the usual rate, not whatever amount the rescue actually cost if the rescuer incurred a greater than necessary loss.
In your case, you didn’t agree to have your friends come to help, and their efforts didn’t really help you in the end since you managed to hook up with your group through your own efforts. Furthermore, their expenses were greater than what was really necessary. So you are under no ethical obligation to pay them back.
However, you should ask yourself if this is the time to stand on your rights. Look at the situation from their point of view: out of concern for your welfare, they went out of their way to try and find you and reunite you with the group. If it is not too much of a financial burden, the fairest thing is if you do agree to repay them what they spent, or at least the cost of a cut-rate ride like the one you found.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma pg. 116; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 264:4.