Dear Co-It-All, 

I was at a friend’s house for a cocktail party last weekend. I was holding a glass of red wine when the host’s giant dog ran into the room, knocking over another guest who then fell into me causing me to spill my drink all over the white carpet. It was a large spill and of course I felt badly. We did the whole salt and club soda thing and I apologized a bunch of times before I left. And then yesterday I get an email from the host mentioning that the spot was still there and they were going to have to get a new carpet. The way she said it, it almost felt like she expects me to pay. That’s ridiculous, right?  I mean, it was an accident, obviously. And the whole thing wasn’t even my fault.

Let me see if I have this straight because it all sounds kind of complicated. There you were, innocently enjoying a glass of wine at a friend’s house when another person (also seemingly innocent) bumped into you, because that person was also bumped into. And now we have a white carpet ruined by red wine, a dog that may or may not belong in the doghouse and uncertainty around whose job it is to cough up for a new rug?

Does that about cover it or did I get it completely wrong? Oh no wait…it doesn’t matter.

Of course there aren’t exceptions to the blanket statement I am about to issue (we’ll get to those in a sec), but the general rule is that as a host, you are making the decision to welcome people into your home, and as such you are assuming a greater than usual risk that something may get damaged or ruined.

A host can do her/his best to mitigate that risk: put away valuables/breakables, and so on. More than once I’ve been to a party where the invite will say specifically “no red wine please”. I generally roll my eyes at this level of analness, but then, I probably wouldn’t buy a white carpet (read: stain magnet).

In your letter you get specific about exactly how the spill went down—who did what to whom. In the end, though, all that really matters is that—as you said—it was an accident. So even if you hadn’t been bumped by another guest, who was bumped by a dog. Even if you had just gone over on your heel, the responsibility issue wouldn’t change.

In legal trials, you need to prove both the crime and the intent, and this is sort of the same thing (note: I am not a lawyer, nor did I consult one to render this judgment).

You mentioned you apologized and this is an important part of the etiquette dance. I can remember this one time where two friends (a couple) were over to my house to watch the hockey game. We were drinking red wine and the guy spilled getting it all over his pants and my beige couch. When his girlfriend (who had been in the kitchen at the time) came back into the room just then, she was all, “Oh my god, Freddy, your pants!” I swear, this guy was wearing $30 khakis from The Gap, and yet my couch seemed to be an after thought. I still hold a grudge about how blasé they were.

Point is, appropriate remorse is essential, which should be obvious, but well…see above.

As I said, there are some exceptions. For example, if the red wine spilled because you got into a physical fight with someone, that is not really an accident. Or if you got super drunk and spilled, or spilled because you were trying to do some kind of Tom Cruise in Cocktail era bar trick. (Now there is a movie that deserves a remake. Paging Zac Efron!!!).

Going back to legalese, I’m pretty sure negligence can at times be considered a type of intent. (Same legal disclaimer applies). But like you said, you weren’t negligent. Just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Side note: who lets their large dog run free at a cocktail party?)

As for your friend’s email, without reading it I can’t say whether she really was trying to imply that you should offer to pay. As discussed, you’re under no obligation.  Still if you’d like to be the bigger person here you can write back saying how bad you feel and offering to pay for a professional spot cleaning. And then let it go.

As someone very wise once said—there’s no use crying over spilled wine. Unless it’s your last bottle.