Hacham Yom Tov Yedid Last Chief Rabbi of Halab
By: Rabbi Max Sutton
Yaakov, a teenager of Sephardic Jewish descent, strongly resembled a young Muslim, in his facial and physical features. Whenever he traveled through airports, he was detained for questioning on account of his appearance.
One evening, Yaakov went with a friend to a steakhouse for dinner. The restaurant was packed with seated customers and many were waiting at the entrance for the next available table. Yaakov, who was curious to evaluate the waiting time, dodged quickly through the crowded entrance into the middle of the restaurant. Bobby, who was dining with his wife and children, detected Yaakov’s rash entry, and suspected Yaakov of being a terrorist. He immediately screamed “terrorist!” and attacked Yaakov, pinning him to the ground after a brief struggle. In the meantime, the entire restaurant went into a panic and, within seconds, people were running out the door. The friend who’d joined Yaakov for dinner that evening finally made his way through the charging crowd and corrected Bobby’s mistake.
Upon realizing the error he had made, Bobby sincerely apologized to Yaakov – both for the embarrassment and the physical harassment he inflicted upon him. Yaakov humbly accepted. However, Solomon, the restaurant owner, felt differently. Although it was only a false alarm, he was enraged by Bobby’s actions. In a matter of seconds, his maximum capacity restaurant had emptied on account of Bobby’s mistake. Nearly all the customers did not return for dinner that evening, and he expected Bobby to pay for his loss. The damages were estimated at $6,500, which included in-house orders, food already served and not paid for, the cost of employees and the pro-rated cost of the storefront rent for the evening. In addition, Solomon requested compensation for the lost income of that evening’s waiting customers and reparations for the tainted reputation of his restaurant.
In defense, Bobby claimed that if Solomon had seen a Muslim running into his restaurant with his hand in a bulging pocket, he would have reacted the exact same way.
Is Bobby liable for the damages he caused Solomon? How should the Bet Din rule, and why?
According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, one is liable for damages he caused, regardless if they were caused through his actions or through his words. Classic examples of verbal damage include an informant snitching on another to an unjust authority, or backing out of an agreement after expenses were incurred by the other party. Of course, in any instance of verbal damage, a Bet Din will thoroughly analyze the situation at hand before deciding that the defendant is indeed liable.
In a separate context, the Shulhan Aruch rules that a bystander is not liable for damage caused to another person’s item while he used it to save a victim from an attacker. Although the owner of the item is legally entitled to compensation, our sages enacted a special provision absolving the bystander from payment, in order to encourage people to protect those in danger. If payment were required in cases of damage resulting from an act of rescue, many people would be reluctant to intervene to save their fellow in situations of danger. The sages therefore enacted a special exemption in cases of damage caused while rescuing one’s fellow.
It is questionable whether this provision applies even in situations of a “false alarm.” One might argue that if a bystander caused property damage responding to what he mistakenly perceived as a threat, and it later turned out that there was no danger at all, then although he acted reasonably and with noble intentions, he is obligated to compensate the owner of the damaged property. Since he did not, in truth, act to save somebody from danger, this provision would seem inapplicable. It is questionable whether this is, in fact, the case, or if the provision applies anytime one acts due to a reasonable fear of a clear and present danger, even if it is determined that no such danger existed.
It is clear that this provision applies only when one acts to protect somebody else. If one causes damage in order to save his own life, however, he is obligated to reimburse the party that suffered the damage. A person will never hesitate to take action to save himself even at considerable financial expense, and so there was no need for the sages to enact an exemption from liability for one who damages property to rescue his own life.
Leading halachic authorities debate the question of whether this provision is applicable in instances in which somebody causes damage while courageously acting to protect both himself and others. On the one hand, since the person’s life was in danger, he would have acted regardless of whether he thereby incurs liability, and, as such, there is no reason for a special provision to absolve a person from liability in such a case. Hence, according to some halachic authorities, a person bears liability if he caused damage while acting to save both himself and others. On the other hand, some authorities rule that since, in the end, the person acted also for the sake of saving other people’s lives, and not just his own, he should be exempt from liability for property damage he caused in the process. If he were obligated to pay in such a case, the general public would not necessarily realize that his liability stems from the fact that his life was also in danger, and they would thus wrongly conclude that anytime one acts to rescue others, he bears liability for damages caused in the process. Therefore, since the entire reason for the provision is to encourage people to come to the rescue when they see somebody in danger, it should apply even in this case, when the person responds to a threat posed to both himself and others.
There is considerable discussion in halachic works regarding cases where initial damage is caused by an offender which is followed by subsequent damages that cannot be directly attributed to his actions. With regard to the case under discussion, one might argue that if someone screams in a restaurant due to a perceived danger, causing the restaurant to empty, and within minutes it becomes clear that there was no real danger, he should not be liable to pick up the customers’ bills. Since the scare was quickly determined to be false, the customers, seemingly, were required to return to finish their meals and pay their bills. The fact that they failed to do so does not necessarily warrant imposing liability upon the person who mistakenly screamed. On the other hand, disrupting a dinner at a restaurant by mistakenly warning of a
life-threatening danger may entitle the customers to leave without looking back. If so, then we should view the loss caused to the storeowner as the direct result of the person who screamed, and not as subsequent damage.
Causing damage verbally differs from damage caused through action in that one who causes damage verbally is not liable if this occurred due to circumstances beyond his control. Although the Torah imposes liability for damage one causes through actions even under circumstances beyond his control, one is not liable for damages caused verbally unless he is to blame for what happened. Hence, if one inflicts damage physically to another due to a false alarm, as he mistakenly thought there was imminent danger, he is liable, but he does not bear liability if the damage was caused solely through his spoken words.
Endnotes: Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 388:1; KetzotHahoshen 307:4;Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 380:3;Baba Kama 60b; Pene Yehoshua, Baba Kama 60b; Netivot Hamishpat 340:6;
Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 420:32; Shach, Hoshen Mishpat 378:2and 386:6.
If You See Something, Say Something?
After much research and deliberation, our Bet Din acquitted Bobby. As discussed, although one is generally liable for damage caused verbally, nevertheless, since Bobby reacted to a situation which was, seemingly, beyond his control, he is not accountable for the damages caused. After all, it was entirely reasonable, under the circumstances, for Bobby to believe that his life and the lives of the other diners were threatened. If he would have inflicted damage through a physical action, he would not have been acquitted, despite the fact that the incident transpired due to circumstances beyond his control. However, since the damage was caused through his shouting, “Terrorist,” which caused the diners to panic and vacate the premises, the extenuating circumstances yield an exemption from liability.
Additionally, although Bobby reacted to what turned out to be a false alarm, it is possible that he is nevertheless included in the provision absolving payment for damages caused as a result of saving others. As we saw, some halachic authorities absolve one who causes damage while acting to protect himself and others, and thus, according to this view, Bobby would perhaps be exempt.
Furthermore, the customers dining at the restaurant could have returned and payed their bills after the confusion blew over. Their failure to do so was not necessarily a direct result of Bobby’s actions.
In light of all these considerations, although our Bet Din did not comment on whether Bobby made the right decision to jump on Yaakov from a moral standpoint, from a legal prospective, Bobby is not liable for the damages he caused Solomon.