Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5772
P'ninat Mishpat: Damages by a Dry Cleaner(condensed from Hemdat Mishpat, rulings of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)
Case: The plaintiff (=pl) brought drapes to a dry cleaners (=def) for cleaning, and they came back with holes in the oilcloth that is supposed to keep out light. Def explained that since the drapes are ten years old, the oilcloth stuck together during the washing and holes developed upon separating it, despite their responsible precautions. Pl claims 2000 shekels for the now unusable drapes. Def responds that ten-year-old drapes do not have a real value, certainly not to that degree.
Ruling: The mishna (Bava Metzia 80b) says that all craftsmen are responsible for the object on which they are working on the level of responsibility of a paid watchman. That does not only mean that he has to pay if the object is lost but, more generally, that the level of professionalism that is expected of him is great. As the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 306:4) rules, if someone brought grain to the mill and the flour did not come back in the desired manner or one gave an animal to be slaughtered and it was rendered unkosher, the miller or shochet, respectively, if they are paid workers, are responsible to pay. The craftsman is exempt only for damages that occur that are beyond his control.
In this case, beit din determined that def should have been enough of an expert to know that this type of drape could be severely damaged in the process of cleaning. He should have ascertained the age of the drape, which he agrees makes a difference, and have informed pl of the risk he would be taking if he decided to clean it.
Since the drapes are ten years old, there is no basis for the demand for enough payment to buy new drapes. On the other hand, often the market price for used items is extremely low. In recent times, batei din have discussed the difficulty of appraising the price for such items, especially in cases where they have greater value specifically for their owners (e.g., eye glasses). So too, drapes that are cut to a specific size are not easily marketable, but they are valuable to their owners.
The Netivot Hamishpat says that beit din can make the damager pay only the market value and not the value to the owner. However, most poskim (including Minchat Shlomo II, 135) rule that regarding something that cannot be freely bought and sold, the obligation of the damager is to return the situation to one that is equivalent to that which existed before the damage. This is based on Chazal’s understanding of the word “yeshalmena” (Vayikra 24:21), as yashlimena, in other words, make it up to him.
While the drapes could not have easily been sold to someone else, they could have been ‘sold to the owner himself.’ After various inquiries, beit din came to the conclusion that the worth to the owner of an object that is significantly used is around one third of its value as new.
The ruling is that def must pay pl one third of the value of the drapes, were they to be new, and also return the money that was paid for the unsuccessful dry cleaning.
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