A university student, Rivka, came into my office this morning with the following dilemma:
About half a year ago it happened to her that she broke a thermometer containing mercury, which fell on a carpet. Knowing that mercury is toxic she called the firefighters (who are called for all kind of emergencies in this country). They came and decided that they would have to take the carpet with them due to the danger of the mercury. Rivka informed them that she is renting the flat and that this was not her carpet whereupon the firefighters explained to her that they would be in touch with the landlady about the issue.
Rivka forgot about the whole incident, until last week, her landlady came to the flat and noticed that the carpet was gone. She made a huge scene, claiming she had no idea and was never informed by the firefighters about it. Rivka contacted the fire department to inquire where the carpet was now and to ask for the official report. She received the offcial report and the information that the carpet had been disposed off.
The landlady insists now on financial compensation for the carpet which she claims was antique and very precious. Rivka on the other hand states that the carpet, an old soviet type, was surely not worth much. (Both Rivka and her landlady are Jewish and come from the former soviet union.) In any case, the landlady insists now on Rivka paying her 1000 EURO for the carpet.
– Is Rivka responsible for the firefighters throwing out the carpet at all? Should she have prevented them from taking it away? If we can establish that the action of removing the carpet because of a few drops of mercury which probably could have simply been shaken off without leaving any dangereous residue, was out of proportions, aren’t the firefighters responsible for it? Or do we say that Rivka should have informed the landlady immediately when the firefighters took the carpet away so she could follow up with them and prevent its disposal?
As a side point: The landlady is renting out the flat to Rivka illegally. According to the law, since this is a council flat (social apartment) from the governemnt) she is not allowed to rent it out.
Thank you very much indeed for your Teshuvo,
R’ Schlomo Hofmeister
Although the decision to throw away the carpet because of a few drops of mercury seems odd, and the firefighters might be “repsonsible” for it, this does not exempt Rivka from her obligation as a shomer. Because she is renting the apartment, she is a guardian on the furniture, and will be obligated to pay for the damage that was caused, unless the damage is classified as an ‘oness.’ In this case, where she caused the initial damage by breaking the thermometer, and compounded the damage by calling the firefighters, it is certainly hard to call it an ‘oness.’
The question, however, is how to gauge the value of the carpet. Of course, the landlady can’t come up with any sum she chooses, and demand it as compensation. The only way, it appears, to reach a fair evaluation, is to go to a carpet shop, describe the carpet (source, quality, age, condition), and have it evaluated, at least approximately. This is the amount that that should be paid.