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Confiscated Item Damaged in a Hurricane

Question: If a teacher confiscated an item, placed it in the desk drawer and it was ruined in a flood – the room with the object was on the ground level (the school was warned by the government that they are in a flood zone and they will flood – and must evacuate). The Teacher told the student that they will return the item at a later time. The Item was not confiscated during a class time but during a recess – so it was not interfering with learning. It was also going to be returned – so obviously, it couldn’t have been spiritually damaging. Is the teacher obligated to pay or replace the item?

Answer: Thank you for your very interesting question. In Jewish law the teacher would have a status of Shomer Chinam(an unpaid watchman) for the item if he indicated that the confiscated item would be returned to the student. The issue here would be if the teacher was negligent in causing the loss of the item, which would obligate this teacher to compensate for the loss. If the teacher was in the school at the time of the evacuation, and had an opportunity to save the item under their care and did not, this would be negligence. If the teacher was home when the evacuation orders came, and could not have been expected to drop everything to run to the school to save the student’s item, this could not be considered negligence, rather an Onas (an unavoidable circumstance), for which a Shomer Chinam (as well as a Shomer Sachar, a paid watchman) is exempt.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

Question: Thanks for the quick response – however, in this case there was warning for many days prior regarding the Hurricane and that is why all schools in the City and in the flood areas already announced on the Friday before the storm that ‘due to the incoming hurricane the school will be closed on that Monday. So in reality the teacher had time and should have secured these items before taking leave for the weekend. (there is no school on Sunday). Therefore the Teacher in this case being a Shomer Chinam would be obligated to pay. Would it be ok to ask the Teacher and Student to come up with a compromise and settle the cost or do I leave it and let the Teacher pay in full? Once again Thank you.

Answer: Hi! Thanks for the clarification. I’m not sure what your role in this is, but it is certainly always better to resolve these issues via Peshara, compromise. If Peshara can’t work, while it seems based on the information provided that the teacher should pay, it isn’t appropriate to decide such a ruling without the teacher having the ability to present their side of the story. This should be done in front of a competent Rabbi or Jewish Court, in the presence of both parties.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

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