The Vanishing Importer and Other Tales
Dovid calls me with following shaylah:
”Several years ago, Yonasan asked permission to store some items in my basement for a few months. The items are still in my basement, and I have no idea where Yonasan now lives. I have tried to contact him without any success. How do I get rid of his stuff? I need the space for other things.”
People have often asked me this or similar questions, where someone ends up with someone else’s unwanted property on their premises. The issue is that two people’s rights are in conflict with one another. On the one hand, Dovid has a right to regain the use of his basement; yet, on the other hand, we cannot ignore Yonasan’s ownership rights.
We will see that although the halachos in these cases are complicated, we will be able to understand some of the rules involved.
In order to answer Dovid’s shaylah, we need to determine several halachic factors:
1. Was Dovid originally responsible for taking care of Yonasan’s items?
2. Assuming he was once responsible, is he still responsible?
3. If we assume that he is no longer responsible, or was never responsible, may he remove the items from his premises? What may he do with them if he removes them?
The Tanna’im (Bava Kamma 47) dispute whether or not granting someone permission to place belongings on my premises makes me automatically a shomer chinam, an unpaid watchman. The Sages contend that when I tell someone that he can place his items in my yard, the unstated assumption is that I am accepting responsibility for the items. If the item is subsequently lost or stolen through the homeowner’s negligence, he must pay for it, even though he was not paid to guard the item. Rebbe disagrees, contending that permitting someone to place items on my property is not equivalent to accepting responsibility for them.
Most halachic authorities conclude that if one offered to store items in his house, he has assumed some level of responsibility, but if he offered to store them in his yard, he has not assumed responsibility (Shach, Choshen Mishpat 291:8; cf., however Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #4, who rules that he is not responsible in the house either). Thus, when Yonasan placed his items in Dovid’s basement, Dovid became a shomer chinam on those items, and is obligated to pay if he is negligent in taking care of them. As a result, if Dovid left the house unlocked one day and someone entered and stole Yonasan’s property, Dovid would be obligated to compensate Yonasan. By the way, Dovid could avoid this responsibility by simply telling Yonasan that although he may place items in Dovid’s house, Dovid is assuming no responsibility and is not a shomer.
HOW LONG DOES DOVID REMAIN RESPONSIBLE?
In our case, Yonasan asked permission to store his items in Dovid’s house “for a few months.” Assuming that Dovid really believed that Yonasan would remove his items at that time, he is no longer a shomer when the time is over and is no longer responsible for negligent damages (Machanei Efrayim, Shomrim #19). However, this does not mean that Dovid can now remove Yonasan’s items and place them on the street, because that would be considered as damaging Yonasan’s property, which is prohibited.
Let us compare this case to a fascinating anecdote of the Gemara:
THE CASE OF THE HAPLESS LADY
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 101b) relates the following episode. A businessman, whom we will call Mr. Wine, purchased a shipload of kosher wine and could not find a place to store it. When he asked a local woman, Ms. Storage, if he could rent warehouse space, she was initially unwilling to rent him the space, and only agreed after he consented to marry her. After this “marriage of convenience,” Mr. Wine promptly divorced Ms. Storage. She retaliated by selling some of the wine and using the proceeds to hire porters to move the wine into the street. When Mr. Wine summoned Ms. Storage to a din Torah for selling his wine to pay for the portage, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, ruled that since he tricked her into storing his goods, he had no monetary claim against her, and that she indeed had the legal right to remove the wine from her premises at his expense. As we will see, it is unclear whether she could remove the wine from her premises if this would cause the wine to be stolen or damaged.
In the above situation, because Mr. Wine discovered immediately what she had done, he suffered no further loss. Would Ms. Storage have been liable to pay if the wine was stolen before Mr. Wine discovered that it was in the street?
The Rosh rules that although Ms. Storage may remove the wine from her premises, she is liable for any loss that occurs until she notifies Mr. Wine that she has removed the wine. Therefore, the Rama rules that she must notify Mr. Wine before removing his wine from her premises.
Obviously, this ruling places Ms. Storage in an unenviable position if Mr. Wine leaves town and cannot be contacted. Although he tricked her into storing her goods, she cannot remove his items and place them where they may be damaged.
Not all authorities agree with the Rosh’s opinion. The Taz (Choshen Mishpat 319) contends that if someone stored property on your premises without your permission and it is in a place that you need, you may remove his property without being concerned about the loss he suffers as a result. (This is based on his understanding of the Rambam; note that some other poskim interpret the Rambam differently.) According to the Taz’s approach, Ms. Storage could have placed the wine in the street without notifying Mr. Wine, without any financial responsibility or risk. The line of reasoning behind the Taz’s approach is interesting.
The Gemara (Bava Kamma 27b) rules that “avid inish dina linafshei,” a person has the right to protect his own property. Thus if a person or his animal is damaging my property, I may use necessary force to remove him or his animal from my property.
Similarly, the Taz contends that one may remove items placed in my property if I do not want them there. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:56) appears to disagree with the Taz, contending that one does not have the right to remove someone else’s property and place it in the street. Rav Moshe’s responsum is in the context of a different, interesting case.
THE CASE OF THE VANISHING IMPORTER
A distributor asked Rav Moshe the following shaylah: “An importer/supplier asked me to store some merchandise for a couple of months and I agreed; but I neglected to get his address and phone number. A year later, the importer returned, very apologetically explaining that he was delayed and thought he would return sooner. In the middle of the conversation, the importer said, ‘I must take care of something. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ He disappeared once again and has not returned since. It is now months later and I need to make room for my own merchandise. What can I do with his property?”
Rav Moshe compares the distributor’s predicament to the Case of the Hapless Lady. He contends that even in that case, one may not remove the wine to a place where it could be stolen unless one first notifies the owner. He further concludes that if Ms. Storage cannot locate Mr. Wine, she may not move his wine to the street. However, Rav Moshe rules that she could move his wine to an alternative warehouse and sell some of the wine to pay the portage and rent. Similarly, Rav Moshe rules that in the Case of the Vanishing Importer, the distributor may sell some of the importer’s goods to pay the moving costs and rent a different warehouse.
The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn6) disagrees with Rav Moshe, contending that instead of selling some of the merchandise to rent storage space, one should sell all of the merchandise and hold the money for the importer’s return. (Certain other details must be followed in carrying out this sale.) Both approaches assume that one may not sell the importer’s merchandise if the distributor has available storage space, but dispute which approach is better if the distributor has no available space. Even though the importer took unfair advantage, the distributor may not treat the importer’s possessions with disregard.
Rav Moshe’s dispute with the Pischei Choshen what to do with the importer’s goods hinges on which of the following two rulings applies in our case. In the Case of the Hapless Lady that we mentioned above, the Rambam rules that although Ms. Storage need not notify Mr. Wine, it is commendable (midas chasidus) for her to inform Beis Din that she will be removing his wine from her premises. The Beis Din then proceeds to sell some of the wine and thereby pay for the portage and storage. Rav Moshe explains that Ms. Storage may do this herself if she wants, but that if she does not want to bother, all she is required to do is to notify Beis Din that she will be removing the wine from her premises. If Mr. Wine cannot be located, either Beis Din or Ms. Storage may remove his wine to a secure warehouse, paying for the portage and storage from the merchandise.
The Pischei Choshen contends that one sells the merchandise to pay rent only when its owner knew he would be paying rent until he returns — therefore he has no major unexpected loss from using an alternative warehouse. However, this is qualitatively different from the Vanishing Importer who may not have realized that he would be paying rent. The Pischei Choshen therefore compares the Case of the Vanishing Importer to a different Talmudic discussion where a shomer is responsible for produce whose owner is unaware that it has begun to spoil. In this case, since the owner will suffer from an unexpected major loss, the shomer sells the items under the supervision of a Beis Din to try salvaging whatever he can, and then the shomer holds the money for the owner until his return (Bava Metzia 38a). (The halacha is that the shomer may borrow the money, obviously interest free, until the owner returns [Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:19].)
The Pischei Choshen contends that since the distributor is not obligated to store the importer’s items at a loss, and there is no place to store them for free, we are left with two possible courses of action, one of which we will eliminate:
1. Rent a storage facility paid for by gradually selling the merchandise. This will eventually erode the remaining value.
2. Sell the merchandise, thus recouping some value for the importer.
Since we cannot contact the importer, or know when he will return, the Pischei Choshen elects the second option as the correct halachic approach.
In Dovid’s original case, Yonasan had asked him to store his items for a few months, a timetable that passed several years ago. Thus, one can compare his predicament to the case of the Vanishing Importer, which would allow Dovid to follow one of the suggested procedures to save Yonasan from a loss: either to sell some of the property and thereby rent storage space (Rav Moshe’s approach), or to sell it all and hold the money (Pischei Choshen’s approach).
However, this is true only if the loss Yonasan would suffer is because Dovid must have the space available for some other purpose. If Dovid is simply annoyed by the cluttered basement, he has no halachic basis with which to remove Yonasan’s property.
Another complication usually occurs in these situations: If Dovid did not specify the length of time he is lending use of his premises, he is presumably still the shomer of Yonasan’s property and is still liable for any negligence, and certainly would be liable if he damaged the property. This is qualitatively different from the Case of Hapless Lady and the Case of the Vanishing Importer, where the homeowner is not a shomer.
The Pischei Choshen (Hilchos Pikadon:7:ftn5) asks whether in a case like this Dovid is required to be a shomer forever.
I attempted to find a source that would relieve Dovid of his responsibilities in this very common case. I have thus far been unsuccessful. The closest parallel I have found is the following case:
Yehudah agreed to be a shomer on someone’s property; now he wants to leave town and cannot take the item with him. What does he do? The Rambam (Hilchos She’eilah 7:12) rules that agreeing to watch an item does not make you a prisoner in your home; you have a right to leave. What does Yehudah do? He brings the item to Beis Din which then assigns it to the care of a reputable person.
However, this ruling is applicable only if the shomer wants to leave town and can no longer supervise the item. I have found no other halachic source that discusses how one can terminate one’s shmirah of an item when the shomer remains in town, and the owner is unaware that one wants to terminate responsibility.
THE CASE OF THE CARRY-ON LUGGAGE
This leads us to the following shaylah. What is the halacha in the following situation? At the airport gate, you agree to watch someone’s carry-on bag so he can use the comfort facilities. Forty-five minutes later, your plane is boarding, and the bag owner has not reappeared. Must I miss my flight because I agreed to watch his bag? What do I do with the bag?
In this carry-on case, I think one can assume that when someone asks me to watch an item at an airport gate, he knows that I can watch the item for only a brief period of time. If one needs to leave and the bag owner has not returned, I would recommend alerting airport personnel and letting them decide what to do, and at the same time leaving a note where you were sitting. Abandoning the bag will probably cause it to be stolen or impounded and destroyed by airport security, and I suspect that airport Lost and Found is also not a good alternative.
By now, I think we have become convinced of the necessity for clarifying our responsibilities in advance when someone asks us to watch their item or leave something at our house. Of course, realizing the complications that may result should not cause us to reconsider doing chesed for people; simply, we should be certain to do it in such a way that we do not create unnecessary entanglements.