The crazy legal battle at a country club over a $30,000 wine-stained handbag
Illustration by Carolyn Ridsdale
It's fair to say that if Mrs. Ethicist has heard a bad story about your private club in a non-adjacent state by listening to Howard Stern, you're doing the whole managing-of-your-professional-reputation thing wrong.
Where to begin? Like many bad dates, it started with dinner.
Maryana Beyder and her husband, Igor, were just another couple of members having a meal at Alpine Country Club—a New Jersey country club in the New York City suburbs known for its fine dining. Beyder, a New Jersey real-estate agent who specializes in luxury properties, carried with her to dinner her own display of ostentatious luxury—a $30,000 Hermès Kelly handbag her husband had given her for her 30th birthday.
And, like your new (and similarly priced) Toyota Camry seems to instantly attract stray shopping carts and door dings in the grocery-store parking lot, so too did Beyder’s vintage pink purse become a magnet for trouble in the dining room. In a turn of events that must have played out in slow motion for everyone involved, a waiter spilled a glass of red wine on Beyder’s unobtanium purse, leaving it with a dark stain. Unlike, say, the Camry, five-figure handbags don’t carry collision insurance. So when the bag wasn’t able to be cleaned, things got even messier than California cabernet on French calfskin.
After a year of wrestling with the club and its insurance company trying to get a resolution for the ruined bag, Beyder sued Alpine in October for the purse’s sticker price. The club doubled down in two ways that probably won’t make it into the recruitment literature potential members (or prospective service employees) get when they come for an interview. First, it responded to the suit by saying it wasn’t responsible for compensating Beyder for the damaged bag—which it said might not be authentic or worth what Beyder claimed. It also took the bold step of filing a cross-complaint against its own waiter—who isn’t identified in any of the filings—saying that if anybody should be financially responsible for the bag, it should be the waiter.
Five-figure handbags don’t carry collision insurance.
Public reaction—and blowback—was immediate. Stern and co-host Robin Quivers riffed on the story in the news segment of their popular SiriusXM show, and Stern was equally incredulous that somebody would walk outside with a purse that costs more than a car, and that the club would so thoroughly throw its employee under the bus. The story was picked up in the New York City papers and the Washington Post, and within a week the club revised its cross-complaint to drop the assertion that the waiter should be on the hook financially.
Now, it seems to be a question of who blinks first: the club, which is likely tired of getting dragged for what could charitably be described as a penny-wise but-pound-foolish response to essentially a big drycleaning bill, or Beyder, who has to weigh her interest in seeing things made right with the awkwardness that could come with hanging out at a place that is basically calling her out as a handbag poseur.
In what might be the most satisfying thing The Ethicist types this year, Howard Stern is right. Whether you’re talking about a fancy watch, a lovely suede jacket or an extravagantly priced purse, when you take those accessories out on the town, you’re assuming a degree of risk. It’s part of the territory if you want other folks to see that expensive stuff. And, hey, accidents happen.
But even if ultimate financial responsibility for an accident like the one that doomed Beyder’s purse is a legal and moral gray area, the cost analysis involves way more than just divining replacement value for a rare bag and trying to get out of writing a painful check. A high-end club that caters to guests with $150,000 Bentleys parked in valet, $20,000 gold-plated Honmas tucked away in bag storage— and yes, $30,000 Hermès handbags situated at the side of the table—is doing it wrong if it’s not trying hard to make it right when accidents happen.
After all, reputation is currency, and to buy advertising space on Stern’s show roughly equivalent to the time he spent talking about the club to SiriusXM’s 35 million subscribers would approach six figures.
The Ethicist doesn’t have a degree in finance, but that math seems pretty simple.
Are you or someone you know involved in a tricky, amusing or just plain strange golf situation? Tell us about it, and the Golf Digest Ethicist might write about it in an upcoming column. To submit, describe your issue or send a news link to e-mail GolfDigest_Ethicist@discovery.com.