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Shabbat Parashat Bo 5781

P'ninat Mishpat: Who Caused the Renovations to Stop? part I

(based on ruling 79110 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The defendant (=def) hired the plaintiff (=pl) to do renovations, based on general guidelines, in a house she wants to sell or rent out. They signed a contract for 115,000 NIS not including VAT. In a notation on the contract and a later addendum there are itemized additions with line values adding up to another 39,600 NIS. After starting, def delayed stopped the work for a couple of weeks so that an interior designer could draw up exact plans. Disagreements, mainly about finances, arose after a few weeks, and the work ended, close to complete, with 135,000 NIS paid. Pl is unwilling to finish the work because def has indicated she will not pay any more. Def is unwilling to pay because she denies the validity of the additional fees for various reasons. Pl is suing for the remainder promised to him, with some adjustments if he does not finish, plus 2,000 NIS a day for the work stoppage in the middle, with the claim that his workers could not be reassigned to other projects. Def demands a return of money because of a list of uncompleted elements, faulty construction, damage from the delay in completion, and because def had agreed to forgo VAT.

 

Ruling: We will start with beit din’s ruling on def’s various claims that ostensible agreement to pay additional sums are not binding.

1. Due to financial, physical, and emotional pressure, def is not responsible for the decision – in order to not be bound by commitments, a person must be on the level of a cheresh, shoteh, or katan (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 235:20). Both in her appearances before beit din and in her recordings of her conversations with pl, def comes off as a fully capable adult who was aware of what she wanted and was willing to pay. As far as pressure regarding this deal, only when under special pressure (the gemara refers to a fugitive on the run) and an unfair price for the service, may one renege on the commitment (ibid. 264:7).

2. Pl was aware that def had a set budget she could not exceed – Originally def spoke of an amount she did not want to exceed. However, nothing was said in absolute terms, and when def decided she wanted things (which were not even necessities) that were not included in the original price, it was not pl’s responsibility to ascertain if it is wise for her to extend the budget.

3. The page of additional charges was written when there was a relationship of trust – the fact that there had been a good relationship does not make an agreement optional or conditional on continued good relations, as long as there was informed consent. One who wants conditions must stipulate them.

4. The page of the additions was not signed – since def admits the page was composed together to serve as the basis for the continued work, it need not be signed to be a binding blueprint of employment (Beit Yosef, CM 331).

Therefore, def was obligated by her unsigned agreement to pay for additions. Comparing notations on various versions of the agreement raised doubts about agreement on certain elements. Based on that, a modest sum was reduced from the claim of 39,600 NIS.

 

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