Shmuel Bender and Asher Beckerman were study partners (chevrusas). They also sat next to each other in shiur. Shmuel felt fortunate to have the privilege of learning with Asher, whom he admired greatly.
One day in shiur, Rabbi Nussbaum posed a difficult question to the students. Asher raised his hand and provided the answer.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Rabbi Nussbaum. “Let’s now explain in detail what Asher answered.” He then proceeded to elaborate upon the idea for the students.
Asher typed away on his notepad, taking notes as Rabbi Nussbaum talked. Shmuel reached over good-naturedly and slowly began to shut the screen of Asher’s computer. “You don’t need to take any notes,” he said. “You already know the whole shiur!”
Asher instinctively shot his hand out to keep the screen open. His hand accidentally hit the left side of the screen with force. The edge of the screen blackened and lost its display.
“Look what you did!” Asher complained to Shmuel. “You ruined the screen!”
“Shake the screen,” someone suggested. Asher shook the computer, to no avail.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” Shmuel said. “Try shutting the computer and starting it again; maybe it will come back.”
Asher shut his notepad and restarted it. The screen flickered to life, but the left third remained damaged with black and white lines running from top to bottom.
Shmuel peered over at the screen. “Maybe I can adjust the screen window,” Asher said. He adjusted the window of his Word program and was able to move it into the usable part of the screen.
Shmuel’s mind wandered regretfully for the remainder of shiur. When shiur was over, he meekly asked Asher, “Is the computer usable?”
“I can use the computer like this for programs and dialogue boxes,” Asher said. “But it cuts down the window size significantly and is very inconvenient to use.”
“Can you get the screen fixed?” Shmuel asked.
“I suppose I can replace the screen,” said Asher. “l’ll have to bring it in.”
“Do you know how much it costs?” asked Shmuel.
“About $100,” said Asher. “It also means that I don’t have the computer for a week; that’s also a problem.”
“It really was an accident,” said Shmuel. “I wasn’t trying to do any damage.”
“I don’t know think that makes a difference,” said Asher. “You had no right to touch my computer.”
“True,” replied Shmuel, “but I didn’t damage the screen; you did when you hit it!”
“But you made me hit it,” responded Asher. “It’s clearly your fault that I damaged the screen!”
“I acknowledge that it was wrong of me to touch your computer,” said Shmuel, “but that alone doesn’t make me liable for damage that you did.”
“It’s not just that you touched my computer,” argued Asher. “You startled me and caused me to shoot my hand out instinctively.”
Later that week they saw Rabbi Dayan in the beis midrash. “Here’s our chance to resolve our issue,” Shmuel said to Asher. “Let’s ask Rabbi Dayan!”
Shmuel and Asher sat down with Rabbi Dayan and related what happened.
“It is important to distinguish between actively damaging,” replied Rabbi Dayan, “and causing damage.”
“A person who actively damages another’s property is liable even if the damage was unintended and not willful,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “He is even liable if the situation was not completely under his control.” (C.M. 378:1)
“On the other hand, a person who did not actively damage, but only caused damage indirectly, is not legally liable according to most authorities,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “This is called grama, causation. Frightening someone without physical contact and causing him to become sick or injure himself is considered grama.” (420:32; Rama 386:3; Shach 386:24)
“It seems strange that there is never legal liability for causing damage,” said Asher.
“A person is liable for inevitable, immediate causation or for certain common cases,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “This is called garmi, but it requires a separate, extensive, discussion.” (386:1)
“So then I don’t have to pay for the screen?” asked Shmuel.
“Although grama is not legally obligated, the Gemara (B.K. 56a) notes that there is a strong moral responsibility to pay, chayav b’dinei shamayim,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “According to some authorities the person is considered wicked if he doesn’t pay. However, this applies only when he intended to damage or should have considered the outcome, not when unexpected damage occurred accidentally.” (Shach 32:2; Pischei Choshen, Nezikin 3:39)
“Thus, although Shmuel had no right to touch Asher’s computer, he did not intend to damage nor did he have reason to expect damage to ensue to the screen,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “Therefore, he does not have to pay Asher for the screen. Nonetheless, it is derech eretz to chip in partially for the repair as a means of appeasing Asher.”
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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.