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Shabbat Parashat Haazinu Sukkot 5783

P'ninat Mishpat: Responsibility of Workers for Water Leak

(based on ruling 81111 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiff (=pl) represents his neighbors in a residential building. Pl hired a contractor (=def1) to do renovations in their building. During his work, def1 damaged the main water pipe of the building. He sealed it temporarily and brought in a plumber (=def2) to fix the pipe. Def2 inspected the pipe and decided that the temporary sealing was sufficient, and so def1 covered up the pipe with earth. After a few months, the residents noticed a significantly larger than usual building water bill. Pl called def1 to inquire, and def1 did not respond. Two months later, the bill increased even further, and they hired a professional, who discovered the leak. Def2 then fixed the leak. While the neighbors received a discount from the water company, they are suing def1 and def2 for the extra amount of the water bills they paid.

 

Ruling: Although def2 did not sign an arbitration agreement, he agreed during the hearing to join as a party to the suit. According to the accepted understanding of Arbitration Law (see Borerut Din V’Nohal, p. 55-58), it is sufficient to accept arbitrators orally if done in a clear manner.  

Damages that come from a water leak are considered indirect damage. They are sometimes considered gerama (indirect damage), in which case, there is not always payment, and sometimes considered garmi (semi-direct damage), in which case, there is payment. In this case, there is a different reason to obligate the defendants. As professional workers, in whom their employers give trust to properly take care of their work, there is a heightened obligation, which includes indirect damages (see Bava Kama 99b-100a). This certainly applies to a plumber who confirms incorrectly that a leaky pipe does not need to be fixed further. (There are other times that it is not possible to hold a workman responsible, when he was not able to predict a damaging situation (see Chukei Hatorah, Pitzuy Histamchut 4).) In this case, while def2’s instrument indicated that there was no longer leakage, he had an obligation to come back the next day to confirm that this situation was stable before having the pipe covered up.

Since def2 was working as a subcontractor for def1, def2 is responsible for his shortcoming, and he must pay 6,243 NIS. Def1 who had overall responsibility for the job has to pay 567 NIS, for the third professional that pl brought in and for part of pl’s fee to beit din. Def1 also must serve as a guarantor for def2’s payment of his obligation, since he is the one who brought in def2 under the umbrella of the job for which he was responsible. The neighbors also have responsibility. They did not diligently take care of the signs of leakage when initially getting a report of wasted water. They did not notify def1/def2 early enough for them to minimize damage. Therefore, they must absorb part of the loss.

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