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Shabbat Parashat Emor 5781

P'ninat Mishpat: Responsibility for High-Voltage Damage

(based on ruling 79051 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiffs (=pl) paid the defendant (=def), a contractor, to build their apartment. Two of pl’s appliances were damaged, and a technician determined that the apartment’s voltage, which was too high, caused it. The technician estimated the value of the ruined washing machine as 4,000 NIS and the dryer as 2,000 NIS, so pl are suing for 6,000 NIS.

 

Ruling: First we must determine if def can be held responsible for damage that pl physically himself caused by plugging in and turning on their appliances. When one shows a moneychanger coins he is considering accepting and the latter mistakenly approves them, the moneychanger is obligated to pay for the loss if the customer informed him that he would be relying on the appraisal (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 306:6). The Netivot Hamishpat (ad loc. 11) claims that when one has paid for the advice, he does not have to state that he is relying on it. When def told pl that the apartment was ready for full occupancy and this belief caused damage to the appliances, def became obligated to pay.

Additionally, in the contract between def and pl, def accepted responsibility for flaws in building (which are done by a contractor’s workers or subcontractors). Only in the case of unusual extenuating circumstances is one who obligated himself exempt (Gittin 73a).

Pl and their technician assumed that it was not possible to fix the damaged appliances, and therefore they appraised the damage in terms of replacing them. Because beit din does not, as a rule, accept the appraisals of experts presented by litigants and for such a small suit it is not cost effective to pay for an expert appointed by beit din, the sides permitted beit din to do informal consultation with people from the field on a pro bono basis. Beit din’s sources pointed out that one would expect that if the problem was the high voltage, one could salvage the appliance by replacing the “electric card” at the cost of 800-1000 NIS. Beit din received permission to speak with the technician, and he admitted that he did not try to fix the appliances.

There are two ways to appraise damage in such cases: 1. To see how much the object’s market value depreciated. 2. To have the damager pay for repairs. There can be a significant difference between the two regarding cases a used object. Rav A. Scheinfeld (Chok L”Yisrael, Nezikin pp. 194-196) demonstrates that the classic halachic means of appraisal is the former. However, Rav Y. Blass (Techumin, v. XIII, p. 389) points out that this is often unfeasible when the object is something that is not normally sold so that the change in value before and after the damage is negligible. Rather in many cases, it is logical to make the damager pay to fix the damage. In our case, we prefer to have def pay according to the price of fixing.

While it is now too late (the appliances were replaced and discarded) to know for sure if the appliances could have been fixed, we will obligate def not for their full value but for how much we could have expected to have made them pay for fixing it, which is 1600 NIS between the two appliances.
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