Question

Reuven was sitting in the waiting room of the
maternity ward, eagerly expecting good tidings. As time wore on, he became
a little thirsty. He inserted some coins into the vending machine in order
to buy a can of soda. Nothing came out. Just at that moment, the midwife
announced that his wife had just given birth to a boy. “Forget about the
drink,” he said, and went off to view his new son. Shraga, who was also
waiting for good news, decided to try and extract the lost coins. He gave
the machine a couple of well-aimed blows – and out came a flood of
coins! Who is the owner of these coins?


Answer

The
mishna in Tractate Bovo Metzia (26b) informs us that if a
person finds an item which has no distinguishing mark on the floor of a
store, he may keep it. Although a person usually acquires articles that
land in his domain automatically (kinyan chotzeir), on this
occasion he does not automatically become the owner of the lost article. A
person’s domain acquires those articles that land in it only if he is
confident that nobody else will take this item (mishtameres l’daatoh).
The section of a store where the customers mill around does not fall into
this category. Since there are so many people around, the owner fears that
someone else will find the article before him and keep it for himself. He
therefore despairs of acquiring the lost item. As a result, it remains
ownerless and available for acquisition by whoever finds it. This law is
quoted by the Shulchan Oruch (Choshen Mishpot 260:5).

Is
there any way that a person can make an acquisition by means of his
unguarded domain, without his knowledge? According to the Shulchan
Oruch
(Ibid. 268:4) there is. If someone wishes to give him a gift and
places it in the recipient’s unguarded domain with the intention that
the he should thereby acquire it, it does become his (da’as acheres
makneh
).

Let
us apply these principles to our case. The vending machine is considered
the domain of its owner. It should therefore automatically acquire any
item which lands inside it (kinyan chotzeir) for the owner.
However, since it is located in a public place to which many people have
access, the owner is not confident that he will acquire any item which
falls into the category of a lost article (i.e. it is ownerless). As a
result, the machine does not automatically acquire such an item. Every
vending-machine owner knows that sometimes money gets stuck in the machine
and the customer tries to retrieve his coins by means of hitting the
machine. The customer definitely has no interest in making the machine
owner a gift of these coins! He also knows that some customers despair of
retrieving their money in such circumstances (like Reuven). Their money
then becomes hefker (ownerless), since coins are considered to be
an item which has no distinguishing mark. Any person who succeeds in
extracting these coins may therefore keep them for himself. However, if a
customer has received a can of soda in return for his money, his intention
is to give the payment to the machine owner. Even though he leaves it in
an unguarded location (at the owner’s request!), the owner does acquire
the coins (da’as acheres makneh). Should any person manage
to dislodge these coins from the machine, he must return them to their
rightful owner – the owner of the vending machine. 

We
can therefore conclude that Shraga may keep the coins which Reuven lost in
the machine, if he is able to identify them (for example, if only this sum
came out of the machine). Any other coins must be returned to the owner of
the machine, since we assume that they were inserted by customers who did
receive a can of soda in return for their money.