Your Friend – Not his Voice Mail

Question

Asher met his friend Naftoli who just returned from a trip to Africa.
Naftoli mentioned that he had tried to call Asher while in Africa, but had
been answered by his voice mail. “When was this?” asked Asher. “At
8.30 last Sunday evening,” answered Naftoli. “I was at home at that
hour,” said Asher. “If so, I want you to reimburse me for the call! Do
you know how much a call costs from that part of Africa? Twenty bucks a
minute! And I first had to bribe the clerk!” retorted an irate Naftoli. 
Is there any basis to Naftoli’s claim?


Answer

Let’s start with a question:  Is there any problem with connecting an answering machine or
a voice mail to a private telephone line? Answering machines have been in
commercial use for a long time. If one calls a lawyer or any business and
is asked to leave a message on the machine, this is perfectly normal. More
recently, many private individuals have also connected voice mail (here in
Israel it is called Ta-koli) to their private lines. Since this has
become common practice, a caller cannot always expect to receive a
personal answer. If the person he is trying to contact is not at home or,
with some types of voice mail, if the line is busy, he will be answered by
a pre-recorded message. It is on this understanding that he makes the
call.

This system has many advantages, including that the
caller knows that his message will reach its destination. Sometimes if one
leaves a message with a child or a babysitter, it is not passed on! The
message is also preserved on the machine. The recipient can listen to it
as often as he wishes. Having sung the praises of this system, we are left
with one question. What happens if you are at home and you are just
not interested in answering phone calls? The phone rings and the answering
machine/voice mail answers. Does the caller have a claim to a personal
response under these circumstances?

The answer is that you have no obligation to answer
the phone. Indeed, one of the advantages of the answering service is that
you can select which call you wish to answer. The caller may well feet
hurt that you did not bother to answer his call, but he has no monetary
claim against you. However, you may not waste his money by picking up the
receiver and hanging up without speaking. He may well think there is some
technical problem with the line and try again. 
Nor may you tell the (unwanted) caller that he should call you
later, when you know that you will not be at home at that time! In
addition to being guilty of deception and telling lies, such a person has
also caused the caller an unnecessary monetary loss.

We can therefore conclude that Asher did nothing
wrong in not answering Naftoli’s call. Indeed, even if he knew that
Naftoli was calling, he would not be obligated to answer the call. He
would not have any obligation to disconnect the answering machine either,
since he wanted to give Naftoli an opportunity to leave a message, should
he wish to do so. However, had he answered the call and, hearing
Natfoli’s voice on the other end of the line, hung up without speaking,
he would have been guilty of causing him unnecessary loss (as well as
upsetting him).