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Who Pays for the Ambulance? Reimbursement in an Emergency

Parashas Chukas includes the episode of the fiery serpents. These serpents were sent by Hashem to punish the Children of Israel for speaking, in their anger and frustration, against Hashem and against Moshe.
After the people repented, Moshe davened to Hashem, Who instructed him to fashion a serpent—Moshe made it of bronze—and to erect it on a pole. Thereupon, anybody who was bitten by a snake could look upon the serpent, and be cured of the deadly bite (Bamidbar 21:4-8).
This episode brings us to reflect on an important and quite pertinent halachic question. Doubtless, fashioning the bronze serpent involved costs—the cost of the raw material, the cost of forming the serpent, and of erecting it on the pole. The question is: Who foots the bill for these expenses?
In the case of the bronze serpent, the Gemara (Avoda Zara 44a) writes that Moshe was instructed to make it at his own expense, so that the question was resolved in that case. But in general, can a person who incurs expenses to save somebody else claim compensation from those who benefit from his efforts, or not?
A common case where this issue arises is when somebody is injured in an accident, and a bystander calls an ambulance. Who needs to pay for the ambulance: the person who made the call, or the injured party for whom the call was made?
As we will see, this question is not as simple as it might seem.
Lost Property and “Lost Persons”
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 73; Bava Kama 81) derives from the obligation to return lost property that just as we are obligated to restore a person’s property, so we must care for the person. This means that whenever we find somebody in danger, whether the threat is to life or to limb, there is a positive mitzvah to assist him—no less than that of returning his lost property.
The basic principle in performance of mitzvos is that we must perform a mitzvah for free. A mitzvah performed for material remuneration is flawed: Instead of doing it in response to the command of Hashem, the mitzvah is done for the person paying for it.
This principle applies even to the mitzvah of returning lost property, which must be done for free (as ruled by the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 265:1). The Rosh (Bava Metzia 2:24) states: “It is forbidden to take remuneration for the performance of the mitzvah.”
Nevertheless, the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 30b) teaches that someone who suffers a loss of work due time spent returning lost property may claim compensation from the owner. Furthermore, if there is no possibility of retrieving his expenses, the mitzvah does not apply. In the words of the Mishnah: “His own comes first.”
For regular mitzvos, one must spend (under ordinary circumstances) whatever money is required to fulfill the mitzvah, such as building a Sukkah, baking or buying matzah, ensuring one has a pair of Tefillin, and so on. The case of returning lost property, however, is different. The Torah obligates us to take care of other people’s property, but not at our expense. Therefore, one may demand payment for costs incurred, and where this is not forthcoming the obligation does not apply.
The principle behind this rule is that the mitzvah of returning lost property is to prevent somebody from suffering a loss. Thus, it stands to reason that there is no obligation to do so when the person preventing the loss will himself suffer a loss.
Yet, this applies specifically for returning a person’s lost property. When it comes to a person’s body—ensuring a person is not bodily harmed—the Gemara indicates that the obligation to save a person includes the financial responsibility for expenses. (The Gemara writes that a person must even rent the services of others to save a person in danger, as derived from the obligation of not standing on another’s blood.)
It thus makes sense—or so it seems—that Moshe had to pay for the bronze serpent. The victims he saved need not compensate him for his outlay.
Paying for Benefit
Yet, the Rosh (Sanhedrin 73) rules that in the cases mentioned by the Gemara—seeing someone who is drowning, being dragged by wild animals or about to be attacked by bandits—the victim must reimburse the rescuer, if he has the means to do so. In a similar sense, we find in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 252:12) that if a person redeems a captive, the captive must reimburse him (if he has the money to do so).
Why is this so? From where does the obligation of reimbursement derive?
Shut Maharshdam (Yoreh De’ah 204) relates to this question in the context of a group of people who incurred costs in trying to save a young man from the hands of a dangerous cult he had joined. Their efforts were ultimately fruitless, and he remained part of the cult. Yet, the group approached the man’s father, and requested that he reimburse them for their expenses.
The Maharashdam ruled that since their efforts were not effective, the father is not obligated to reimburse them. He specifically differentiates his case from the case of the Rosh: In the case of the Rosh, the rescue attempt was successful and the beneficiary must pay for the benefit he received. In the case of the question, the attempt failed. Since there is no benefit, there is no obligation to pay.
The principle that establishes the obligation is that of yored—somebody who “goes down” to another’s field, investing his own money to improve it. The general rule of yored is that when a person provides an unsolicited service to someone else’s assets at a cost to himself, the beneficiary is obligated to compensate the benefactor for his expenses (Choshen Mishpat 375).
Expenses incurred to save a person’s life fall into the category of yored, despite the existence of a mitzvah to save a person from harm. Where the rescue is successful, the person who was saved benefited, and must therefore pay the expenses that were incurred. Where it fails, there is no benefit, and therefore no obligation to reimburse the rescuer.
This principle is ruled concerning property loss by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 264:4), who writes that when a person tried to rescue lost property, but failed to do so, he is not entitled to any compensation—unless something was explicitly stipulated with the owner.
Exemption for Saving Lives
Based on this analysis, it follows a person who calls an ambulance will be entitled to reimbursement only if the call was required, and the medical assistance provided effective. If the call turned out to be unnecessary, or if the medical assistance proved ineffective, the person who calls an ambulance need not be reimbursed for the expenses.
This, however, is problematic, for it would make many people think twice before calling for help. Attempts to save a life can end up costing significant amounts, and people might be dissuaded from taking the necessary action to do so.
Because of this concern, the Gemara (Bava Kama 117b) records an enactment whereby a person who causes damages to somebody’s property while seeking to save a life is exempt from liability. For instance, if a baby is locked in a car and a passerby needs to break the window to save the baby, he is not liable to compensate the owner of the car for the damage even if he failed to save the baby.
This will apparently apply in the case of calling an ambulance: Chazal made the enactment to ensure that people should not hesitate to act in saving a life, and calling an ambulance is surely included. The result will be that neither the caller, nor the patient, is halachically responsible for paying for the ambulance (see, however, below).
Liability of the Patient
However, other sources indicate that the patient is in fact liable to pay, whether the eventual treatment was successful or not.
This seems to emerge from the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 264:6-7) which equate saving a person’s life (escaping from prison) to saving a person’s property. In both cases, the beneficiary must pay the benefactor his expenses (though he does not have to pay an exorbitant sum, even if this sum was stipulated between them). Moreover, the Sema (264:19) explicitly puts the two cases together.
The reasoning for this might lie within the laws of yored, where we find a distinction between cases in which the service provided applies to a field that certainly requires it, so that the owner would most likely have requested it anyway, and cases where the service or improvement is of doubtful need.
In the former case, we assume that there is an effective employment contract between the owner and the yored, so that he takes a regular salary regardless of benefit actually accrued to the owner. In the latter case, no contract can be assumed (since it is not clear that the owner would have employed somebody to do the work), and the yored can claim no more than whatever benefit is actually incurred.
In cases of emergency, it is reasonable to assume that the victim counts on others to act on his behalf to contact emergency services as his agent. Therefore, if someone calls for help as an implied agent of the victim, the victim will be liable to pay the costs of the emergency services regardless of whether he benefited from the call or not.
This analysis is made by Rabbi Baruch Rubanowitz. Based on this line of thought, he adds that if an overly sensitive person misreads the gravity of the situation, and calls the emergency services in a case where doing so is unjustified, the caller will not be entitled to receive compensation from the victim. Since the call was unjustified, no agency can be assumed.
Moreover, the caller will not be subject to the exemption of Chazal to someone who incurs an expense in the process of saving another’s life. The exemption does not apply to somebody who misjudges a situation.
A practical instance of this is recorded by Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, who tells of a case in which somebody collapsed on the street, and the person next to him called an ambulance. In fact, the person who collapsed knew that there was no danger involved (he suffered from a certain medical condition), but was unable to communicate this to the person who called the ambulance, unaware of the condition he suffered from. In this instance, the person who collapsed will not be halachically liable to pay the ambulance fee.

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