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Shabbat Parashat Chukat 5773

P'ninat Mishpat: The Return of Equipment that Was Given or Lent part II

(from rulings of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiffs (=pl) daughter-in-law (=dil) worked in a preschool run by the defendant (=def). Over the years, pl presented the school with thousands of shekels of equipment. After several years, dil left the school and the field of early childhood, after which pl demanded return of the equipment. Def objected, as she viewed the equipment as a donation, based on which she had thrown out old but usable equipment. Pl insists that she told def before the donations began and over the years that it was just on loan. At some point, pl threatened def that she would bring workers to take the equipment, relenting only when def agreed to sign a letter acknowledging the equipment was a loan that would be returned if and when a close relative of pl would start a preschool. A year later, pl’s daughter planned to open a preschool. Def sent some equipment in a manner that pl describes as too late (allegedly contributing to the inability of the daughter to open the pre-school), partial, and damaged. Pl now demands payment for the lent materials, which she thinks are no longer in good enough condition to take back.

   

Ruling: [In the first part, we saw that the only proof that pl had a right to receive the equipment in return other than the letter of admission, which should serve as the framework for def’s obligation to pl.]

The question remains as to the nature of the “loan.” There is a legal model of a gift for a certain period of time and a model of a loan. One difference between them is whether the borrower has to pay for damage to the object, which pl claims occurred. Def is not responsible for normal depreciation (including certain objects, such as books, no longer being usable after years of use by children). This is because even a sho’el (classic borrower) is exempt in the case of meita machamat melacha (that which died or was destroyed through normal use) (Shulchan Aruch, CM 340:1). In order to be responsible for damages, one has to accept the responsibility, explicitly or implicitly. There is no proof, nor is it clear from the letter of admission, that def was aware of such a status.

Once pl’s daughter decided to open a preschool, pl had a right to demand return of the equipment, raising the question of who has to pay for moving the equipment (to a different part of the country). The halacha is that return of an object to the person who gave it over to be watched is at the place it was given over. Thus, def can return it to pl at her school. It just must be organized in a manner that pl has effective access to receive the equipment, including that pl must ensure the unfastening of equipment that was connected to the ground.

While pl demands payment for depreciation from the time dil left, she is entitled only from the time that her daughter started a school. Any use by pl after that time was improper and so she must pay for that depreciation.

Pl preferred to be paid the value of the equipment still in def’s possession rather than to have to transport used material. While beit din ruled that as long as the objects are intact, she has a right only to them, not their value, they urged the sides to agree to a compromise along the lines of partial compensation, which they did.

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