Recently, I came into my kitchen and was horrified to discover a snake on the floor. I quickly ran out, closed the door and called a snake trapper. He came, caught the snake and charged me a hundred dollars for his services. When I told the story to some of my neighbors, one of them informed me that there is a neighbor who keeps snakes in his apartment and he was away for the last few days. Apparently, in his absence one of his snakes escaped and made his way into my apartment. My question is can I force my neighbor to reimburse me for the hundred dollars I spent? My neighbor admitted that it was his snake, but he says he asked someone who told him that beis din cannot make him pay since he just caused me an expense. He said maybe in the din of Shomaim he is liable since there one is liable for causative damages but not in beis din. Is he correct?
The first issue is: who was responsible for catching the snake, you or its owner? Catching snakes is not discussed in the Gemara but the case of a fallen wall is discussed. The Mishna (BM 117B) rules that if a person’s wall fell onto his neighbor’s property he cannot free himself from the expense of removing the stones by telling his neighbor that he may keep the stones.
The Rishonim ask why the owner of the stones cannot free himself from responsibility by declaring them ownerless since the Mishna is discussing a situation where it was not his fault that the wall fell (mafkir nezokov le’achar nefeelas oness). Tosafos answers that he is responsible because he did not declare them ownerless. The Rosh disagrees and maintains that even if he were to declare them ownerless now, he would not be free of responsibility since the fallen stones already damaged his neighbor before its owner declared them ownerless The damage was that the fallen stones prevented his neighbor from tilling the area of his property that was occupied by the stones.
All these reasons apply to your situation as well since, first, your neighbor never declared his snake ownerless. Second, even if he declared it ownerless now, the snake already caused you damage since you could not use part of your property. Third, this situation is far worse since the snake’s escape cannot be classified as an oness since one must keep snakes in a cage, whereas the fallen wall was an oness because there was no prior indication that the wall was in danger of falling. Therefore, responsibility for removing the snake certainly rested with your neighbor, its owner.
The next issue is whether beis din can force one who is derelict in fulfilling his obligation, to reimburse a person who spent money in order to carry out his obligation. This issue is discussed in a number of places in the Gemara. One situation is where a person went on a trip and left his wife without funds to cover her expenses and someone else voluntarily paid her food bill. The Mishna (Kesubos 107B) records a dispute whether the one who paid is entitled to reimbursement by the derelict husband. We rule (CM 128, 1) like the opinion that he is not entitled to reimbursement.
Tosafos and many others ask that we find many other cases where the Gemara rules that one who spent money to pay another person’s expenses is entitled to reimbursement. For example, the Gemara (BM 31B) rules that if a person spent money in order to save someone else’s lost object he is entitled to reimbursement.
Tosafos (BK 58A) answers that the critical factor is how certain the loss was. For example, the Yerushalmi says that the reason the one who paid the wife’s food bill is not entitled to reimbursement is because the husband can argue that others, e.g. her parents, would have paid her food bill had the volunteer not paid, and they would not have asked for reimbursement. However, in the case of the lost object the expense was inevitable.
In your situation as well, people don’t trap snakes for free and since the owner was obligated to catch the snake right away the expense was unavoidable. Therefore you, who spent the money that your neighbor was obliged to pay, are entitled to reimbursement.
There are other situations where this comes up. For example, a neighbor may go away and a pipe of his bursts and water leaks down to his neighbor. If the downstairs neighbor brings a plumber to fix the pipe he is entitled to full reimbursement (if the plumber’s price was reasonable). Another situation that comes up sometimes is where a store’s burglar alarm goes off in the middle of the night disturbing the neighbors’ sleep. If the neighbors cannot contact the storeowner or they called him and he refused to come and they call someone to pick the lock and shut the alarm they are entitled to reimbursement from the storeowner. The reason is because as the Chashukei Chemed (BK 55B) writes that the store owner is obligated to come even in the middle of the night. Since he was obligated to come and he refused to do so and it costs money he must reimburse the one who paid money to enable him to fulfill his obligation.
Even when a person is obligated to spend money for his own good or because he has a personal obligation but he neglects or refuses to do so and someone else spends money on his behalf, the person who spent the money is entitled to reimbursement. Proof for this contention can be brought from a ruling of the Maharam of Rottenberg (Res. Kremona 32, ruled by Rama in Yoreh Deoh 252, 12) that if someone who was taken captive by gentiles refuses to spend his own money to be released and someone else spends the money on his behalf, the captive is obligated to reimburse him since a captive is obligated to spend his money to free himself from captivity by gentiles. The Maharam proves his ruling from several examples in the Gemoro.
One could ask that perhaps your situation is different because in your situation you did not intend to pay your neighbor’s debt or to fulfill his obligation. Rather, you brought the snake trapper in order to free yourself from your unwanted company. Essentially, we could say that you spent money on yourself and your neighbor merely benefited from the money you spent for yourself. This would seem to be a situation which should be classified as ze nehene veze lo choseir (A benefits from B’s action but B did not lose anything) where the one who derived benefit (A) does not have to pay anything to his benefactor (B) since his benefactor needed to spend the money anyway for himself.
However, this is not the correct analysis of your situation. Even though you intended to protect yourself, this cannot be called money that you anyway spent for yourself since the one who needed to pay was only your neighbor and not yourself. Therefore, it is not money that you needed to spend anyway. Had you been aware of the true situation you would have known that you were spending the money only for your neighbor and not for yourself at all. Whenever one makes a decision based on lack of correct information it is a mistake and does not affect the ruling. This is similar to mekach to’us where a person bought something based upon incorrect information where the sale is invalid since his decision to buy was done in error. Since the reality is that you spent the money only for your neighbor, he is still obligated to reimburse you.
Proof for this contention can be derived from the case of a person who planted and worked on his wife’s field, as he was obligated to do, but before he could harvest the crop the couple got divorced. The Gemoro (Kesubos 80A) rules that the wife, who receives her field after the divorce, must reimburse her former husband for his expenses even though he incurred them for himself. Another case is where a person bought a field from a gentile only to subsequently discover that the gentile who sold it to him stole it from a Jew. While the purchaser must return the field to its rightful owner he is entitled to complete reimbursement from the owner (CM 236, 8) since the owner benefitted from the one who bought it from the gentile and we don’t rule that the buyer is not entitled to reimbursement since he bought the field for himself. Rather, the determinant is who really benefitted from the purchase.
In conclusion: If you paid the snake trapper a normal price you are entitled to full reimbursement from your neighbor.