The Alperts needed some work done around their house. The contracted Mr. Fixler, a general handyman, to do the job.
While working on one of the fixtures, Mr. Fixler accidentally knocked his drill off the ladder. It landed with a thud on the floor of the entranceway, cracking a tile.
Mr. Fixler apologized profusely for the incident. “Obviously, I will replace the tile,” he said. “Do you have any spare tiles?”
Mr. Alpert looked around his basement for remaining tiles, but could not find any. He took the broken tile to the store from where he had purchased the tiles seven years earlier. “Do you have any of these tiles left?’ he asked. “One of ours cracked and needs to be replaced.”
“We don’t carry that style anymore,” said the salesman.
“Perhaps you have an odd box left in the warehouse?” suggested Mr. Alpert.
“I’ll check with inventory,” said the salesman, “if you can wait here fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll wait,” said Mr. Alpert.
The salesman went away and returned fifteen minutes later. “There are no more of those tiles in inventory,” he said. “That style was discontinued five years ago. I checked with some other vendors that we work with; they also don’t have any left.”
Mr. Alpert returned home. “There’s no point in having one tile that doesn’t match,” Mr. Alpert said to his wife. “We’re going to have to retile the whole entranceway.”
“If we redo a strip of complementing tiles, that should suffice,” Mrs. Alpert said. “I’ll come with you.” They went to the store and chose a box of fancy, decorative tiles. They gave the tiles to Mr. Fixler to install, along with a bill for $109.
When Mr. Fixler saw the bill for the tiles, he felt that the amount was exaggerated. “You have very expensive taste,” he commented. “I don’t need to cover that.”
“How much do you think is fair?” asked Mr. Alpert.
“I cracked just one tile,” said Mr. Fixler. “I don’t owe you more than that. I’m willing to go beyond the letter of the law and replace additional tiles, but not to pay for them.”
“We would have been very happy had you not damaged any tiles,” replied Mr. Alpert. “Consider that the broken tile was also expensive.”
“It certainly wasn’t that expensive,” argued Mr. Fixler. “Anyway, the tiles were seven years old. It also was an accident.”
“The tiles were in fine condition, though,” said Mr. Alpert. “The new tiles are only needed because of your damage. It’s not fair that we should have to pay.”
“How about letting Rabbi Dayan settle this?” suggested Mr. Fixler.
“Great idea!” responded Mr. Alpert. “Let’s do that!”
The two met with Rabbi Dayan. “A worker who damages in the course of his work, even unintentionally, is required to repair or compensate for the damage, like any other person,” said Rabbi Dayan. “Therefore, you are certainly liable for the damaged tile.” (C.M. 378:1; 306:4)
“I understand, but does that require me to pay anything beyond the one cracked tile?” asked Mr. Fixler. “To replace this one tile we are installing a whole strip.”
“It can, since the primary obligation of damage is to restore the item to its former use,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “Therefore, if replacing the damaged tile requires uprooting and replacing a few additional, adjacent tiles – they are also included in the liability. Also, tiles are sold as a whole box, not singly.” (See Shach 387:1; Chazon Ish, B.K. 6:3)
“What about the fact that the tiles were old, though?” asked Mr. Fixler. “Also, the decorative strip looks nicer than the original simple flooring. The original box of tiles would cost no more than $50 had it been available!”
“If the repair adds value, the owner needs to absorb part of the cost,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “For example, if a worker broke an old sink and it was replaced with a new one, he is liable for the cost of installation and the proportional worth of the old sink; the owner is responsible for the differential in worth between the new sink and the old one.” (See Mishpetai HaTorah I:24)
“But we cannot restore the actual damage here,” said Mr. Alpert. “The original tiles are not available. The only way to make it aesthetically pleasing was by adding decorative tiles.”
About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail email@example.com.
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