No Use Crying – Over Spilled Oil!

Question

Bluma decided to treat all her grandchildren to a supper of fried fish and chips. After
having deep-fried the food, she placed the pot on the window-ledge outside to cool off.
During the night, it rained heavily, and she forgot to bring the pot in. The rainwater
filled the pot and caused the oil to overflow onto the balcony below. The owner of the
apartment below walked out onto his balcony, slipped on the oil, fell and broke his arm.
The arm needed to be set in a plaster cast. His trousers also needed dry cleaning. What is
Bluma’s liability in this case?


Answer

The Gemora in Bava Kama (29a) informs us that if a person left a
load near the edge of his roof, in a position where it could be swept off by normal
currents of wind (ru’ach metzuya), he is liable for damage caused by its
falling. If the damage is caused during the fall, he is liable because this is similar to
lighting a fire (aish). Just as a fire moves from place to place, so is his
carelessly placed load expected to move and cause damage. Should the damage only occur
after the load has fallen to the ground, he is liable for having "dug a pit" (bor)
– i.e. creating on obstacle in another domain. Once again, his liability stems from
the fact that this careless placing of his property made it likely to fall and cause
damage.

The laws applying to each type of damage differ. There is full
liability for all types of damage caused during the fall. If the damage was only caused
after the object had come to rest, liability is limited to injury to man (but not death)
and injury or death to animals. There is no liability for damage or destruction of other
property (inanimate items). All these laws are derived from the relevant verses. What if
the victim stumbled over the obstacle, but the actual injury was caused on impact with the
ground? Tosafos writes (Ibid 28b) that since the injury was not directly caused by
the obstacle, the person who placed the obstacle is exempt from payment. He would only be
liable if the obstacle also caused the actual injury. This ruling is adopted by the Shulchan
Oruch
(Choshen Mishpot 411:1 – even though the Nemakay Yosef and Rashba
disagree).

One should also note that the victim is not held responsible for his
own fall. We do not require him to watch out for illegally placed obstructions in the
middle of the street!

Even where there is liability for injury, this is limited to paying for
any permanent damage caused. Liability for medical expenses (ripuy), temporary
inability to work (sheves), pain (tza’ar) and embarrassment (bowshess)
only exist when a man injures another man. Where one is injured through
another’s property, he is exempt from such payments.

Does medical care that is required in order to return the injured limb
to its former state fall under the category of permanent damage? The Nesivos (440:3) is of
the opinion that it does. Were it not for this care, permanent damage would result. The
Chazon Ish (Bava Kama 13:2) disagrees. When assessing whether permanent damage has
been caused, we look at the situation after medical treatment.

As to our original question, even though Bluma is guilty of creating an
obstacle on her neighbor’s balcony, it seems that we are unable to make her pay for
any of the damage. Since the cause of damage was an obstacle (bor), there is no
liability for staining of the trousers (an inanimate object). Assuming that the neighbor
broke his arm on a part of the porch covered in oil, since he did not sustain any
permanent injury, he cannot claim damages. In our case, even the Nesivos would agree that
there is no liability for medical bills. The plaster-cast is only required to keep the arm
still during healing. It does not actually cure the broken arm. Theoretically, if the
victim were to keep his arm still, it would heal in the course of time. The cast is only
for his convenience, to give him mobility. However, since Bluma was responsible for this
accident, she will be held responsible in Heaven for the consequences (see Mei’ri, Bava
Kama 56a
). She would therefore be well-advised to appease her neighbor and pay for
damages.