Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Justice relating to accidental death and property damage. Part 3

Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

The third passage concerns establishing responsibility and restitution of property when the persons concerned are not acting dishonestly.
If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man's field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.

If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.

If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man's house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.

If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, an oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor's property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn.

If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution. If the owner was with it, he shall not make restitution; if it was hired, it came for its hiring fee. (Exodus 22:5-15 ESV)
Property damage due to a person's behaviour, accidental or negligent, must be restored completely. The person responsible is expected to restore at least the same level as prior to such damage. Though they may keep the damaged property as seen when an animal kills another. (Exodus 21:35-36)

When property is in the care of a person to whom it does not belong and there is property loss (or damage) responsibility, and therefore restitution, is divided up thus
  1. Owner gave goods. Theft of goods, criminal actions of a third party: possessor no obligation
  2. Owner gave goods. Theft of animals, criminal actions by third party: possessor obligation
  3. Owner gave goods. Death of animals, no criminal actions: possessor no obligation
  4. Possessor borrowed goods. Possessor obligation
  5. Possessor hired goods. Possessor obligation
The basic structure is that if you have goods in your possession at the request of the owner then you do not bear responsibility. If you have goods at your own request then you are responsible. If you hire them then you are responsible but accidental damage is covered by hiring fees.

The main exception is theft of animals. It is unclear why this should be different from other goods. Looking at the 2 sentences we have
If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe (verse 7)

If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe (verse 10)
The word for "keep safe" is "shamar" which implies close guarding, not merely looking after. The NET Bible note for this passage reads
The point is that the man should have taken better care of the animal.
Thus a stolen animal implies careless supervision. If this interpretation is correct then a person is responsible because he accepted care but did not supervise in an adequate manner. The question could be asked, Why was the neighbour's animal stolen and not the carer's own livestock?

In general we have obligation for replacement of property when person requests use of another's goods but no obligation when requested to care for another's goods. With the caveats that one is expected to take good care of property, especially creatures, and that hiring fees take potential loss into consideration.

2 comments:

  1. Certainly a lot more just than what we have today, where any old idiot can claim that he or she "didn't mean to do it" and generally get out of it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes Mike,the tendency of sinful man to maximise gain and minimise loss in preference to doing what is honourable.

    What I found interesting in the passage was the importance God places on responsibility for caring for his neighbour's goods. I would have written the law such that requests for care would not have left the trustee with responsibility. But livestock is livelihood, thus God expects us to take as much care as practicable. One cannot stop the death of an animal, but can reasonably try to prevent theft.

    ReplyDelete

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