Hot Coals Damage a Company Car
Question: One of our workers on the night shift returned from work at 6:00 A.M. and parked a company car
in a grassy area adjacent to the road and went to sleep. When he returned later, our employee noticed that he had parked the car over coals which were still hot from a barbeque and the heat melted the plastic on the car causing major damage to the car. While the place that the employee parked isn’t an official parking spot, it is public property and people regularly park there, but they also dump discarded items there. Is the person who discarded the coals responsible for the damage?
Answer: It is difficult to force the one who discarded the coals to pay, due to at least three factors. We will discuss the first factor in this article and continue next time with two other factors, Be’ezras Hashem.
Since the basis of your question is that the owner of the coals damaged your company’s car, we must first classify the damage. The first Mishna in Bava Kama states that there are four classes of damage: one of these is fire and another is a pit into which people or animals fall. The same Mishna guides us in how to classify damages. It states that each of these classes has a feature unique to it. It says that the distinguishing feature of a pit is that the source of the damage-the pit- is stationary. In your situation, since the fire had been extinguished, the ability of the coals to damage is limited to the place where they are. Therefore, one can argue that this damage should have the liability of the class of bor, a pit which damages.
This case is very similar to a case discussed in the Kehillas Yacov (Steipler, Bava Kama, siman 4). The only difference is that in his case the damage was not caused by heat but the damaged object came into direct contact with the coals which burned it up. The Steipler says that this issue is the subject of a dispute in the Yerushalmi. However, he claims that there is proof that according to the Bavli the damage is bor and not eish-a fire. Therefore, according to his opinion, in our case the damage is certainly classified as bor.
The Steipler’s opinion was disputed by Rav Yisroail Grossman (Shiurey Bovo Kamo siman 4). Rav Grossman also writes that it is a dispute in the Yerushalmi but he claims that there is proof that the Rosh rules that it is classified as eish-a proof which is refuted by the Steipler. Each of the four classes of damage not only has a distinguishing feature but also has unique rules. When the Torah records the law that one is liable for damages that result from his having dug a pit, it gives as an example the damages that were incurred by an ox or donkey when they fell into the pit. The Gemoro says that the reason the Torah gave the examples of an ox and donkey is to teach us that if the damage was incurred by an ordinary object, a kli, the owner of the pit is not liable.
Since a car is an object, according to the Steipler the owner of the coals is not liable for the damage to your car, whereas according to Rav Grossman the owner of the coals could be liable for the damages since he classifies the coals as eish. We will discuss two other factors in next week’s article, Be’ezras Hashem.