The Valhalla Metro-North Train Crash: Who is Halachically Liable?



By Rabbi Micha Cohn

This past Tuesday, February 3, 2015, a Metro-North commuter train struck an SUV at a grade crossing near Valhalla, New York, killing the driver along with five passengers on the train and injuring 15 others. As of now there has not been evidence of any safety issues with the tracks, crossing gate or train. On the other hand, fourteen months ago on December 1, 2013, a Metro-North passenger train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx killing four passengers and injuring 61. Investigations found that the train was traveling at almost three times the speed limit because the engineer had suffered from a sort of highway hypnosis. Six months before that, on May 17, 2013, a Metro-North passenger train derailed in Fairfield, Connecticut and injured 72 people. It was caused by a cracked joint bar which had been inspected two days before the crash but was not deemed serious enough to require immediate repair.

Tragedies like these highlight the need for improved safety standards to prevent such calamities. Ultimately, however, we rely on the railroad companies and their employees to maintain and uphold these standards. This brings us to our discussion. We rely on people to ensure the safely of so many things in our lives. We rely on the mechanic who says our car is safe to drive or the repairman who fixes our appliance. We rely on the baker and storekeeper to provide us with food that is safe to eat. But what happens when they don’t do their job? According to halacha are they liable for all the damage that resulted from their negligence? While we would like to think so, there are serious conceptual challenges with this assumption. Generally, the halachic theory of torts is limited to direct damages. At first glance this means that the repairman is not liable if the train derails or if my car malfunctions because he didn’t actually damage the vehicle. However, in this article we will present two approaches which broaden this responsibility.

We begin with a case that came before a bais din in Har Nof, Israel. A woman brought her diamond ring to a jeweler to repair the setting. He repaired the setting and returned the ring. After she wore the ring it was discovered that the diamond fell out of the setting and got lost. Assuming that it can be proven that the jeweler did not fix the ring properly, is he liable for the lost diamond? Rabbi Shlomo Zafrani (Sefer Shimru Mishpat), a prominent Dayan, ruled that the jeweler is liable. He based this on the halacha that a craftsman is considered a guardian on an item that is given to him to fix and is responsible for indirect damages. Normally that responsibility ends when the customer picks up the ring. However, argues Rabbi Zafrani, because it was never disclosed to the owner that the ring was not fixed properly and she should be careful with it, the jeweler retains his status of a guardian. This is despite the fact that the ring is no longer in the jeweler’s possession. It can be compared to the halacha that if the guardian returned the item to the owner’s property but did not notify him, he retains liability. In the same way, when the jeweler returns a ring without letting the owner know how vulnerable it is, it is like he never returned it and is still liable for indirect damage (see Shu”t Maharil Diskin).

Based on this logic, a mechanic who improperly fixed a car, train, or appliance and caused it to get damaged could be held liable as a guardian. Because he did not inform the owner of his poor work he never lost that status and is liable for the damage. Although this is a good argument, it has limitations. It only covers the damages caused to the actual item that had been intrusted with him but not any other damages. To hold the mechanic liable for additional damages like the bodily injuries of the passengers requires a more novel approach.

Our next case came before Bais Din Yashar Vetov (Kovetz 5) in Jerusalem. A hot water percolator had broken and was brought to a repairman to be fixed. The repairman returned the item claiming it was fixed and the customer went ahead and used it to boil water. In truth, the percolator was not fixed properly and it malfunctioned and burned the person using it. The bais din argued that the repairman is responsible for the bodily injury for a very interesting reason. The Mordechai writes, if one party in a dispute makes up with the other to travel to a distant town to have their case heard by that bais din but does appear,they are responsible for the other party’s traveling expenses. While this case would seem to be an indirect damage, they are responsible because the other party was clearly spending the money ‘because of his word’. This concept is comparable to a guarantor who assumes responsibility for a loan by just giving his word because he is clearly being relied upon. The bais din felt that this is a suitable argument for the hot water percolator. The repairman knew that the customer was relying on him to make sure the appliance was safe, and therefore he is responsible for the damages if he was negligent.

This is an excellent argument for safety standards. We literally put our lives on the line based on the assurances of others. As we have seen with these recent train crashes, the passengers are completely relying on the safety of the tracks, train, and engineer. When we fly, we literally put our lives in the hands of the airline company. According to this approach the individuals who make these vital repairs and upkeep the safety standards know that we are fully relying upon them, therefore, they assume responsibility for any foreseeable damage that may occur if they were negligent.

As a final thought, Rabbi Nosson Gestetner (Lehoros Nosson vol. 15) discusses an incident where a person broke their tooth when they bit into a piece of bread that contained a metal wire. Rabbi Gestetner had difficulty holding the baker liable based on the traditional halachic theories of liability. However, he writes that halacha views secular laws pertaining to safety as binding. Therefore, once the government has created strict liability for the safety of food, a concept so vital for the public good, bais din could obligate a person to pay based on these laws. The same could be said of safety standards in general. It is possible that the very fact that these laws exist could create liability in bais din.


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