Compromised Compromise – When is a compromise unfair?

Q. When I recently ordered some documents from a service, they accidentally provided too many, resulting in an inflated charge. When they saw how upset I was, they told me I could have the documents for no charge! Should I offer to pay anyway?

A. As we have frequently mentioned, compromise is an important value in Jewish judgment. But if we carefully examine the source for this idea, we will see that all compromises are not created equal.

The Talmud teaches: “Rebbe Yehoshua ben Korcha says, Compromise is a mitzvah, as it is written (Zecharia 8:16), ‘Judge truth and judgment of peace in your gates.’ Seemingly when there is judgment there is no peace [no pacification], and when there is peace, there is no judgment. But what is the judgment that encompasses peace as well? This is compromise.”

The Shulchan Aruch (authoritative Code of Jewish law) also states that a judge should generally suggest a compromise to the litigants before sitting in judgment.

Surprisingly, there is a sharply dissenting opinion in the Talmud: “Rebbe Eliezer the son of Rebbe Yossi HaGlili says, It’s forbidden to compromise, and any judge who arranges a compromise commits a sin!” What is the basis for this opinion?

One explanation is that when a court is too open to compromise, unscrupulous individuals can exploit them. Even a person who has no real case won’t fulfill his obligations; instead, he will drag his case to court in the hope that the other side will be browbeaten into an unfair compromise. This is obviously improper. After all, even the halachically accepted opinion which supports compromise only favors a compromise which encompasses both peace and judgment, not one which is made solely to avoid conflict.

Taking this possibility into account, the Shulchan Aruch explicitly states that a person is forbidden to draw out litigation in order to pressure the other side into an unfair compromise. And a litigant who acts this way is required to return the money.

We may summarize as follows: a good compromise is one where the other side concedes that I have a valid point, and they are therefore willing to agree on a settlement. An unfair compromise is one where the other side yields only because of some kind of threat — the threat of legal action, of lost business, or of aggravation from an angry customer.

From the way you tell the story, it sounds like you were the beneficiary of an unfair compromise. In all likelihood, the supplier waived the entire payment only to avoid enraging a steady customer, not because they viewed this a truly equitable solution. I think you should offer to pay an amount that fairly reflects the benefit you received.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 6b, Bava Batra 30b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat chapter 12.