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Shabbat Parashat Balak 5778

P'ninat Mishpat: Responsibility for a Collision

(based on ruling 70051 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiff (=pl), a gardener, was hired by the defendant (=def), a homeowner, to plant a garden and lay a cement floor with tiles outside his house for 24,000 shekels. The work was to take two weeks, with half of the payment after the cement was poured and half at the end of the work. Def paid pl only partially. Pl demands full payment. He is also complaining about def’s several changes in instructions and improper use of his materials, which he values at 2,975 shekels. Pl itemized expenses for the job of 23,508 shekels (including payment to his workers) and demands pay for his work of 4,000 shekels (=27,508). Def presented a list of deficiencies in the building, which he claims should reduce the amount of money he owes and also complains that the work took a month rather than two weeks. Before adjudication, def had paid 10,600 shekels, and beit din required him to immediately pay an additional 4,000 shekels, which is the least possible amount of pay that is still forthcoming.  


Ruling: The main problem was in the lack of clear expectations. Def did not see samples of pl’s work, there was not a clear list of work to be done, and there was not a clear accounting of the changes ordered. The two sides should be more careful in the future. We also criticize def for paying less than half of what was due, even though he knew that more was due (including expenses pl incurred), and despite the Torah obligation to pay a worker promptly.

It turns out in retrospect that the price estimate was too low. While that is pl’s problem, it is noteworthy that even considering deficiencies, the work done was worth more than 24,000 shekels, and even when one does work for another without permission, he is still returned at least expenses (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 375:1), which was close to that. While the work was not of high quality, most of the problems could have been fixed easily by a professional, and pl was prepared to carry out most of them. Being two weeks late is not uncommon for such projects.

Even if we are to take off for deficiencies, it should be taken off from the 27,508 shekels, which should have been the value of the work done and expenses, not from the work estimate, because his claim has to do with how much the work was worth. In any case, the claims of deficiencies are unreasonably priced. On the other hand, most of pl’s demands for extra charges for changes are unjustified. We accept only 1,750 shekels (we skip the itemization). So too, we must reduce from the amount due to the value of two days’ work pl admits are needed to raise the standard of work to the required and the fact that def paid 3,500 shekels for materials.

We estimate, based on documentation, the value of the work done at 21,750 shekels. That leaves 7,150 shekels for def plus the whole beit din fee, due to the fact that he improperly withheld money that was clearly slated for payment.

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