I made a huge order of meat and chicken for the holiday season which was unable to all fit into my freezer so I asked my next-door neighbor if I can put some of my meat into their freezer to which they complied. They even came over to my house to help bring the packages of meat to their home and to then be placed in the freezer. To make a long story short the neighbor who took my meat from my house to bring it into his house, put it all inside one large bag and when he brought it home asked their eight-year-old daughter to put it all away downstairs in their storage freezer. In the end, the daughter did not do so and everyone forgot about the bag of meat and only the next day did they remember about it [over 24 hours later!]. The meat was completely defrosted and warm. They were very apologetic and asked me what they should do with the meat now and I told them to throw it all out as it may be spoiled and not healthy to eat. Now my question is as follows: We are talking of over $400 worth of expensive cuts of meat that I had bought for the holidays. Is my neighbor responsible for paying me back for my losses? Do I have the right to ask them to reimburse me for the loss?
Yes you do. Your neighbor is considered to have been negligent with the food that he was entrusted with and took responsibility for, and therefore he’s liable to pay you for your losses. So, if the meat cost $400 he is to reimburse you $400.
Explanation: One of the more famous concepts in monetary Torah law is the concept of Gerama, or indirect damage. The general rule is that one who causes indirect damage to a friend is not liable to compensate him for his loss. Now, although one who does this intentionally is held liable in heaven to reimburse the person for the damages even though a court of Jewish law cannot enforce this payment or instruct him to do so, nevertheless, in the event that the person had no intent to do damage, and certainly in the event that the person caused indirect damage by an explainable human error, then even in the courts of heaven he is not held liable to reimburse. Hence, it would seem that if an individual accidentally left someone else’s food out of the fridge and caused it to spoil, then he would not be held legally liable to reimburse the owner of the food being that this is an indirect form of damage, and even in the eyes of heaven he is not held liable being that it was done by mistake. However, in truth this is an incorrect analysis of the above said case. The above scenario is not a question of liability for causing indirect damage, but rather for liability as a custodian, known as the famous rule of a Shomer. One who agrees to take the item of an individual under his care accepts certain responsibilities towards item and must make sure that the item remains safe and secure until the person asks for its return. Even if the custodian is doing this as a favor without asking for payment, he still holds limited liability for the items safe return, and one of these liabilities is that he not be negligent and cause loss of the item. If loss and damage is caused to the item due to negligence on his part, then he is held legally responsible to reimburse the owner for the full value of the item. Accordingly, it is clear that the neighbor is legally responsible to reimburse the meat owner for the full value of the losses that was caused by the meat not being properly refrigerated. However, perhaps one can argue that it is not the adult neighbor that is liable for the losses but rather the child who was asked to put away the meat into the freezer and did not do as he was asked. Now, since a child is never held liable for damages that he causes therefore perhaps one does not legally merit any reimbursement for the losses of the meat and they should consider it an act of G-d. However, in truth this argument is unacceptable, as it is a clear ruling that a custodian who received an item to put under his guard may not give the item over to another person to take responsibility over it unless one knows that the owner trusts that person as well with the item. Now regarding giving the item to a household member, the rule is that it may only be given to an adult member of the household, such as one’s wife and adult children and not to a son or daughter who is still a child. Hence, when the adult neighbor entrusted their eight-year-old daughter to put the meat away into the freezer they still retained full responsibility over the item, and hence it is they that remain responsible for reimbursing the damage and not the child.
Sources: See regarding the law of a custodian-Shomer Chinam that he’s liable for negligence: Michaber C.M. 291:1; Mishenh Bava Metzia 93a; 94b; Admur O.C. 343:8 Kuntrus Achron 2; See regarding the law of exemption for liability for causing indirect damage Gerama Benizikin: Michaber and Rama C.M. 386:3; Encyclopedia Talmudit Vol. 6 Erech “Gerama Benizikin”; Meiri Bava Kama 56a; Shvus Yaakov 2:25; Ketzos Hachoshen 32:1; See regarding that a custodian is liable even for indirect damage: Admur O.C. 343:8 Kuntrus Achron 2; Chasam Sofer C.M. 140 Other opinions: Divrei Rivos 123, brought and negated in Admur ibid See regarding inability for the custodian to entrust the item to a child: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadaon Halacha 30; Michaber C.M. 291:21; Rava Bava Metzia 36a; Mishneh Bava Metzia 42a