By the Bais Hora'ah
I pay one of my employees by direct deposit. Recently he gave me deposit information for a new account in a different bank, and asked that his salary be deposited only into this new account. Since that request, my secretary made payments of $8,000 into his old account. It turns out that the previous bank froze his old account because he owes money to the bank. Although he was in the midst of negotiating a settlement with them for his entire debt, in the meantime he cannot withdraw the money we deposited for his salary. I contacted the bank and told them the money was deposited into the account in error, but they refuse to return the funds.
Q: (1) Did I fulfill my obligation to pay my employee? (2) If not, who is liable for the mistake — my secretary, who paid into the old account, or me?
A: (1) When a person deposits money owed to another person directly into a designated account, he fulfills his obligation to pay. The same would apply if payment were sent to someone designated by the payee, even if that person is not halachically able to serve as an agent (Choshen Mishpat 121:1). If payment is sent to an account that has not been designated for this purpose by the payee, and the funds did not reach the account holder, the payer has not fulfilled his obligation to pay.
Since your employee removed his designation of the previous bank account as an approved payment account, your subsequent payments into that account do not absolve you of your obligation to pay his salary.
Furthermore, even if the bank applied the deposited funds to cover the employee’s debts, it is still not considered a payment on your part. You state that your employee is negotiating a settlement with the bank on his debt, and had those funds not been deposited into his account there, they may have included those $8,000 in that settlement. Once they have received those funds, however, the bank will no longer be willing to negotiate on that part of the debt. The money you deposited in his account is, therefore, not recoverable.
This situation is akin to a case where Reuven pays Shimon’s debt without first consulting with Shimon. Reuven cannot demand that Shimon repay him, because Shimon can claim that had Reuven not paid his creditor, he might have convinced the creditor to waive his right to collect the debt (Choshen Mishpat 128:1).
(2) Regarding who is liable, you or your secretary, it depends who was negligent in the payments being deposited in the old account.
[Note that even if your secretary was negligent, she is liable to you only for the loss she caused you if you must make an additional payment to your employee. Your employee has no claim against her, as she is not responsible to pay him.]
If you emphasized that she should cease to deposit your employee’s salary into the old account and should deposit the money only in the new account, she is liable for the loss she caused you, because using your funds to issue a payment to an account that does not absolve your obligation to pay your employee is categorized as garmi (indirect damage that borders on direct damage). But if you did not instruct her to deposit the money only into the second account, but merely provided the new account information, she might be considered a shogeg and is not required to reimburse you for the loss (garmi b’shogeg patur, as per Shach 386:5).
Whether the emphasis was clear enough to make her liable for the damage depends on the specific wording of the instructions you issued to her, and the specifics of each such case must be analyzed and adjudicated by a Rav or Dayan.