The legalities of clearing out the office fridge.

The company I’m freelancing for doesn’t clean out their communal fridge every week. For a while, I had to find a rather precarious spot to chill my bag lunch.

Last week, though, a sign went up on Monday morning: “This fridge will be cleared out at 5:00 pm on Friday. Anything left in the fridge at that time will be thrown out!”

That’s a pretty typical fridge-cleaning sign. In fact, most places I’ve worked regularly clean out the fridge that way every week or two.

Monday, it was really easy to find a spot for my lunch. When I took it out again, I noticed that someone else’s lunch was in a very nice looking bag – the kind of thing that cost at least $10 and maybe a lot more depending on how much you can spend on these things. That same nice bag was there Tuesday, and Wednesday…

Which got me wondering: if an employer throws away something from the fridge that belongs to you, do you have any legal recourse? Obviously, few people are going to contest the loss of two-week-old leftover pad thai. But if the fridge cleaners threw away a fancy lunch sack worth $20 or a vintage Muppet Show lunchbox that would fetch $250 on eBay, could the employee sue? (Of course he could sue. Would he have much of a case?)

What are the legalities of throwing stuff away from the office fridge? Do employees use it at their own risk? Is anything fair game for disposal given enough notice? Would throwing something away be considered theft, or what?

(Note: I am not asking for legal advice. I’m just curious about this.)

(Well, okay, if I really had to, I could probably find at least one state with an abandoned property statute that this would technically violate, but the answer is still no. Courts and judges don’t have much patience for silly $20 cases.)

I would say either ex-lax or ipeca…whoops, sorry. I didn’t read the OP all the way through.

I’m not sure there’s enough of a case there, though given some the things that get dragged through the courts these days…you know.

If the employer did get rid of something without putting up a sign like the one on your fridge at work, maybe something more could be made of it.

As a side note and small hijack - I once worked in a small store in which our employer would not allow any of the (very small number of) employees to hang up or store a jacket or bag or anything in the view of customers, leaving us with only one place to store them - a small cupboard. Ok. Fine. A bit silly I thought, but rules is rules. However, I once had a very nice jacket. Nothing special. But very warm, looked good, fit well. Nice. And he threw it out. Or he said he did. Apparently because I left it in the cupboard overnight after forgetting it one evening. Apparently he had a rule about that. A rule that says he can do what he likes anything left in there overnight. A rule that he never mentioned to anybody who worked there. Ever. None of us had heard of it. Needless to say, we emptied that cupboard every damn day afterwards, even taking each other’s stuff home if someone forgot.

Anyhoo, I’ve seen his daughter round the place sporting my jacket since. I know it’s mine because mine was actually made for me by a close friend, was the only one she made and was either way quite distinctive. Like to open up a can of legal recourse on that guy.



So assume that someone’s an idiot and really did put a vintage lunchbox worth $1000 in the fridge. Or hid a $5000 diamond ring in a brown paper bag. Or even just a Jack Spade lunch bag that cost $200 because it’s trendy and includes an iPod pocket. And then they forgot to that valuable item out of the fridge before it was emptied, because, as I said, idiot.

Any recourse, or tough noogies?

I am not a lawyer but in this case you would have to show that the employer breached a duty and caused damages to you. I can’t imagine how an employer has a duty to protect valuables placed in a communal place, especially a place clearly marked for cleaning.

Anyone who actually uses a $1000 lunchbox as a lunchbox or carries a $5000 ring in a brown bag is probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer. To me, it’s tough noogies. Almost, but not quite, like accidentally putting something in the trash and it got hauled away by the garbage truck. Not exactly of course, but it’s just too bad. Practically speaking, I’ve always ignored such signs on the company fridge and have gotten some stuff dumped, deservedly. Whoever is cleaning out the fridge should have the sense to not toss out anything intentionally that might still be wanted.

Did you ask him why his daughter is wearing the jacket he told you he threw out? Clearly he stole it from you. I’d call him on it.

Is your jacket making friend available to help you identify the jacket if need be? Do you need to work for a thief who stole your jacket or could you get a job elsewhere easily enough? Could any lawyer or knowledgeable person here help our swashbuckling friend advising how difficult finding retribution against said boss might be?
(P.S. very cool user name)

Let’s assume there was enough at stake to justify litigation. We’ve discussed related sitations here a few times.

What may I do with someone’s property on my land?
If you find buried treasure, can you keep it?

Essentially, this is mislaid property. You left it, not intending to abandon it, and “forgot” about it. The law assumes that you are returning for it. So the property owner has the right to it against everyone but you, the true owner.

Unfortunately, this begs the question. The question is about the rights and remedies between the owner and the the possessor. This is question about bailments. “Bailment describes a legal relationship where physical possession of personal property (chattels) is transferred from one person (the ‘bailor’) to another person (the ‘bailee’) who subsequently holds possession of the property. However, it is distinguished from a contract of sale or a gift of property, as it only involves the transfer of possession and not its ownership.” This would be considered a gratuitous bailment. The employer is not getting any benefit from keeping your stuff in the refrigerator, but you are.

Therefore, the employer’s duty to you is only slight, some cases say that the employer would only be liable for gross negligence.

The question remains what the duty of slight care entails. I think it matters whether the employer knew that it was discarding something valuable. So a lunchbox can be easily kept for a day or two while an email is sent or an announcement made. I don’t think the employer can be expected to go rooting through brown bags looking for jewels, insulin, war plans, or jeweled falcons. If the employer could recognize from the package that the item was valuable, the employer *might * be liable for discarding it without making some efforts to find the true owner. Otherwise, I think the employer is probably in the clear.

I agree.


What if the employer puts a big sign on the refrigerator that says: “No bailment created. Use refrigerator at your peril”? What if the employer adds similar language to a sign off that is added to the employee manual?

If you wanted to, you could sue the daughter in small claims court. She’s got no legal right to retain the jacket. Of course, if it has been a long time, the statute of limitations might make it difficult for you to recover.

nemo dat quod non habet

I recently had a vintage tupperware bowl disposed of/stolen by someone at my work.

It was a Friday and after lunch I washed it and put it on the drying rack… I was working late that night and when I returned to the break room around 10:00… my bowl was gone.

The funny thing is… there’s a shelf of dishes where everything left in the drying rack is put… so someone either thought it was some cheap crappy disposable bowl or… they saw a birght yellow vintage tupperware bowl and snagged it.

Well, your most obvious legal recourse would be to report a theft to the police.