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Shabbat Parashat Shemot 5780

P'ninat Mishpat: Dont Let the Bedbugs Bite part II

(based on ruling 78030 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiff (=pl) ran group tours that, one Shabbat, used the defendant’s guesthouse (=def). Over Shabbat, pl felt bites but assumed they were from mosquitoes. When the symptoms recurred at home and she discussed the matter with group members and def, she figured out that she brought bedbugs home from def, from which the above were also suffering. Def sent an exterminator to pl’s house, but their one-time treatment did not help def (it helped other group members). Def entered a grueling three-month extermination regimen, which solved their problem. Pl ended up throwing out all of their bedroom furniture. Pl is suing for: the value of the discarded furniture (30,000 shekels); expenses of massive washing and drying of fabrics, including damage to the washer and dryer (7,000 shekels); buying new temporary (out of fear of recurrence) furniture (15,000 shekels); distress (10,000 shekels). Def responded that it was possible that someone in the group brought the bedbugs to def (they did not have problems before and did have afterward). Def argued that they were not at all negligent and paid for an exterminator for all involved beyond the letter of the law. (Def has insurance for the claims but relinquished their rights to them by adjudicating in beit din instead of secular court.)


Ruling: Last time we saw that we should hold def responsible to the extent that insurance companies are expected and usually agree to pay claims against their clients.

Let us compare these norms to Halacha in such a case: 1. In Halacha, a high level of proof of cause is needed in order to obligate, whereas according to societal norm, a low level of probability suffices. 2. The norm does not require a high level of culpability, whereas Halacha requires relatively more for indirect damage. 3. The norm calls for compensation even for psychological distress. 4. According to both Halacha and the norm, the award is reduced to the extent that the damaged could have taken steps to minimize the damage or had some share in the damage.

The two sides agreed that beit din could learn about bedbug infestation from an article on the Dept. of the Environment website (expert witnesses are expensive). Bedbugs only move from place to place at night, and they do not usually move from building to building but from room to room within a building.

Let us investigate what apparently transpired. The two rooms that were affected on the Shabbat in question were not attached and both were open to the outside. The people affected spent only one night in the same building and did not spend other time together in a manner that bedbugs could have been passed from one to another. No one had experienced bedbugs before their stay in the guesthouse. Therefore, the likely explanation is that the bedbugs entered the rooms from the outside at a similar time, and that the guesthouse was thus the source of people’s infestation.

Next time we will look whether def was at fault, whether that makes a difference, and how to estimate proper compensation.

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