I was recently involved in a minor accident in which I dented my neighbor’s car. Only three days later, my neighbor’s car was hit by someone else and his car was totaled. Do I still need to pay for the dent since my neighbor lost nothing as a result of the damage I caused? He didn’t repair the dent in the interim and the amount he will collect from insurance is the same with or without the dent.
Your question is very similar to a question which was posed to the Rashash, which he discusses in his commentary to the Gemara (Bava Kama 17B). In his situation, Reuvain damaged Shimon’s object. Shortly thereafter, a fire broke out in Shimon’s house destroying the house and all its contents. Therefore, Reuvain argued that he should not have to pay for the damage since if he had not damaged Shimon’s object it anyway would have been consumed in the fire. Thus, his actions did not cause a loss to Shimon.
The Rashash refuted Reuvain’s argument. His proof sheds light on the entire issue. The Gemara (ibid) recorded a ruling of Rabba that if A threw B’s breakable object down from the roof and C broke the object before it hit the ground, C is not liable for the damages. Even though C was the one who actually broke B’s object, he is not liable since B’s object was about to break at the time he broke it. The Gemara says that C only broke a “broken object” since from the viewpoint of the halacha an object which is about to break is already classified as broken.
The proof of the Rashash is from Tosafos. Tosafos states that in case B’s object wasn’t about to break because it was thrown from the roof but rather because someone had hurled something at it, C would be liable for breaking the object. Tosafos says that Rabba’s ruling is confined to a situation where an action had been done to B’s object. However, the fact that the object was certainly going to break does not suffice to transform the object into the class of a “broken object.” It is only if by virtue of an action which was done physically to the object that the object was about to break that the object is transformed into a “broken object.”
We can derive a number of basic principles from the ruling and the proof. First, we can derive that there are situations where one is not liable for having physically damaged someone’s object. However, we see that it is only where the action which transformed the object into a “broken object” preceded the action which broke the object. If it only happened afterwards, the one who physically damaged it is fully liable.
We can also derive what one pays for when he is liable for damages. One is not required to only fix the object which he damaged or alternatively to pay the repair bill of the owner of the object which he damaged. Had that been the case, the one who damaged could tell the owner of the object, “Give me the object so I can fix it,” and if the owner cannot give him the object he would be released from paying for the damages.
Rather, liability is independent of what the owner of the damaged object eventually does. Even if he never fixes the damaged object he is entitled to compensation for the damages. The compensation is for the depreciation in the value of the damaged object. That is why the method for evaluating the damages is by evaluating how much the object was worth prior to the damages and how much it is worth after it was damaged. Even in the case where the sale value of the object does not decline, like in your case, where (based on the Chazon Ish as discussed previously) the amount one pays is the cost to fix the object, liability does not depend on whether the owner actually ever repairs the damage. The cost to fix the damage is only the method for evaluating the value of the damage but does not change the compensation.
There is one other issue that needs to be discussed in your situation. The issue is whether in general one is required to pay for the type of damage that you did in denting your neighbor’s car. We should mention that if the car already had many dents and the cost of fixing one extra dent is not significant, then you don’t have to pay anything since the amount you have to pay is the cost of repairing the dent and if there is no added cost there is nothing to pay. However, even when it does cost money there is an issue.
The issue is based on a Gemara (Bava Kama 98A) that records a ruling of Rabba that one who removes the mint impression from someone’s coin is not liable. In the time of the Gemara, coins had intrinsic value since they were made from gold, silver or copper. However, a gold coin that had a mint impression was worth more than one that had not been minted. There is a dispute among the Rishonim whether the halacha follows the opinion of Rabba or not, with the Rosh maintaining that it does since such damages are only causative, and the Rambam maintaining that the halacha does not follow Rabba and the one who damaged is liable.
There is a further dispute concerning the extent of the Rosh’s opinion. The Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 9, 17) cites earlier authorities who extended the Rosh’s ruling to gold and silver jewelry. They ruled that if someone bends jewelry he is not liable because one can reshape the jewelry just like one can remint coins.
The Shach (386, 7) is skeptical whether the comparison is correct. He argues that perhaps all will agree that one who bends jewelry is liable because it is different from a coin. When one rubs away the mint impression he hasn’t changed the object materially. It was a valuable piece of metal before and it still is. The only difference is that the mint impression has been obliterated. However, when one bends jewelry he has rendered a usable object into something which is unusable and therefore, he has done a more significant act of damage.
Even according to the Yam Shel Shlomo it is questionable whether denting a car is like bending jewelry. The reason is because it is possible that the Yam Shel Shlomo only discussed jewelry where the raw materials constitute most of the value of the jewelry. However, the intrinsic value of the aluminum in the car is not significant. Most of the value is its shape. Therefore, it is possible that no one would maintain that one who dents a car is not liable. However, there are those who argue (See Umka Dedino (volume 3, page 391)) that one is less liable for denting a car since it is still called a car whereas bent jewelry is unusable as jewelry. There are some (Mishpat Kehalcha siman 386) who cite Rav Eliashev zatsal as ruling that one cannot absolve someone based on the Yam Shel Shlomo.
In conclusion: 1] The fact that the car was totaled shortly after you dented the car has no bearing on your liability. 2] The fact that you only dented the car most likely does not free you from liability.
We should note that the entire discussion whether one is liable for denting a car is only whether beis din can force the one who damaged to pay. According to all opinions – even the Rosh – the one who dented is liable in the heavenly court of justice and therefore in any case you should pay the entire cost of repairing the dent.