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DOWN THE DRAIN

By: Rabbi Max Sutton



THE CASE

Danny rented a very old house from his landlord Joseph, who resided most of the year in Florida. After years of tenancy, Danny received a water bill nearly ten times the sum he regularly pays. He brought a plumber to inspect the home to determine the source of the problem. To his dismay the plumber detected a burst water pipe below the concrete foundation of the home. Danny instructed the plumber to immediately repair the pipe, which included working through the concrete, repairing, and restoring the property. The price for the plumber’s services and for his accurate detection of the leak with state-of-the-art equipment was $4,000. Danny paid the plumber and later informed Joseph of the outstanding $4,000 bill. Danny, as well, expressed to Joseph that he is seeking compensation for nearly the entire sum of the exorbitant water bill. Additionally, Danny requested of Joseph to pay him for the ruined carpet he recently installed in the basement and for other damages caused to his personal property. Joseph responded that he was unwilling to participate in any of the costs Danny incurred. Joseph explained that the exorbitant fee of the high-end plumber was hired without his authorization, and furthermore he claimed that the water bill is not his responsibility. Likewise, he countered that the damaged carpet Danny chose to install in the basement is not his obligation to replace, nor was he required to reimburse him for any damages.

How should the Bet Din rule, in favor of Danny or Joseph, and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch it is the responsibility of a landlord to restore a property when damaged. While this ruling is subject to several conditions, nevertheless, in the event a water pipe randomly bursts, a landlord is required to repair the pipe. Since the landlord is earning an income from the tenancy arrangement, he is required to provide the tenant with adequate living conditions as stipulated.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, if an unauthorized party invests funds into another’s property, the investor is entitled to compensation for the costs incurred. This ruling is applicable whether the expense sustained was for the repair of damage to the property or for the costs of home improvements. The rationale behind this ruling is that since the landlord is directly benefitting from the unauthorized repairs, his is required to pay for the value of that benefit. A Bet Din will carefully evaluate the value of the benefit received before requiring a landlord to pay the total amount of the bill.

Occasionally, a Bet Din will exempt a landlord from paying for unauthorized home improvements and will subsequently instruct the investor that he is entitled to remove the installments he chose to install.

According to Torah law, one is not required to pay for damages affected by his private property if the damage was caused by circumstances beyond his control. This exemption is not applicable unless the property owner was completely passive regarding activating the cause of the damage. Driving an automobile or starting a fire and consequently causing damage is obviously not included in this exemption, as the offender is playing an active role in the accidental mishap. In the event of a burst pipe, a landlord is exempt from any damage caused, since he was completely passive while his property inadvertently caused damage.

Contemporary halachic authorities view a tenant as liable for all utility costs sustained by the property. Since the contract signed with the landlord requires a tenant to pay the water, electric, and gas bills, he is responsible regardless of the sum or the cause of an inflated bill. Unless it is rendered illegal by state law to impose on a tenant to pay for the water and heating bill, the tenant is required to comply with the contract’s provisions. In short, upon signing of the contract the landlord transferred his responsibility to the tenant regarding all utility costs.

A Bet Din will advise litigants to work together in harmony when preparing an insurance claim. Working together can promote the recouping of at least part of the loss sustained. They are, however, required by Torah law to comply with the insurance company’s regulations by acting with honesty and transparency.

VERDICT A Split Decision

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of Joseph the landlord and required Danny to pay for the exorbitant water bill. As explained in Torah law, Danny assumed responsibility for all utility bills of the property when he signed the lease, which explicitly stated so. Thus, Danny is obligated to pay regardless of the cause of the inflated bill, since Joseph effectively transferred his liability to him. This ruling is nevertheless subject to state law, as certain states require a landlord to pay for water and heating bills. Joseph and Danny’s contract requiring Danny, the tenant, to pay the water bill was legal and binding.

Regarding Danny’s damaged carpet and other belongings, Joseph is exempt from payment. Since Joseph did not actively inflict the damage nor was he negligent, he is exempt for the damage inadvertently caused by the burst pipe.

On the other hand, our Bet Din ruled that Joseph is obligated to reimburse Danny the $4,000 he laid out to repair the broken pipe. Although Danny acted without Joseph’s authorization, nevertheless, upon inquiry, it was apparent that a very efficient job was done for a relatively cheap price. Joseph ultimately benefitted from the repairs done to his property and is thus required to reimburse Danny.

Our Bet Din reminded Danny that perhaps his home insurance would cover the cost of repairs and requested of him to include in his claim all the details of both his and Danny’s damages with honesty and complete transparency. Perhaps Joseph’s policy covers some of his tenant’s damages as well.