by R. Daniel Mann
Question: My friend picked up a trempist (hitchhiker) who did not put on his seatbelt. Police pulled the car over and gave a ticket to the driver (not the passenger) for driving with someone not buckled. Should the passenger reimburse my friend?
Answer: This is not a ruling about a specific case but a discussion of the general scenario. We start with the question of a halachic requirement to pay.
This is an example of a person causing damage without doing something that is direct damage (nezek). It is difficult to consider not buckling direct damage one person does (adam hamazik) or to compare it to one of the other Torah-described categories of damage (i.e., damages done by one’s animal, fire, and pit, or matters derived from them – see ch. #1 of Bava Kama). There are another two categories of one causing damage to another. One, called garmi, can be described as semi-direct damage; we pasken that the causer is obligated to pay (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 386:1). The other, gerama, is less direct causation. There is no enforceable compensation for gerama (Bava Kama 60a), but it is prohibited to cause loss in that way (Bava Batra 22b), and there is often a moral obligation to pay (see ibid. 55b). How to determine what is gerama and what is garmi is one of the most complicated questions in Halacha. Factors that may play a role include: whether he did so purposely or accidentally (see Shach, CM 386:6), especially when the damage came from an external source (see Pitchei Choshen, Nezikin 4:(23)); how likely it is that the action will cause damage (Rosh, Bava Kama 9:13); how immediate was the damage (see Sha’ar Mishpat 386:1).
In this case, many factors favor the passenger if the situation was in a “normal” (although we strongly urge wearing seatbelts) manner. He did not intend to cause damage. The chances of getting caught are small. The damage probably happened well after he got in the car (one can argue that every moment of not putting on the belt is a new affront and view being caught as immediate).
However, there is a stronger reason to exempt the passenger from outright obligation. There are two traffic violations involved here; the policeman could have given two tickets! One (#6706) is by the passenger for not putting on the seatbelt; another (#6705) is by the driver for driving when someone is not buckled in. The “damage” comes based on the “law of the land,” which enables authorities to fine those whom they want to deter from dangerous activities that hurt society. Two people did something illegal – the passenger and the driver. The authorities are interested in teaching both a lesson – BUCKLE UP to save lives or pay money. Your friend directly failed in doing what the law demands of drivers – demanding that people put on their belts. If so, the passenger did not cause the damage, as defined by the law. In some ways, it is like someone getting a ticket for tailgating an improperly slow driver. It is hard to claim that the slow driver is legally responsible for the tailgater dealing with the situation in the wrong way. Here too, the driver could have and did not demand to buckle up.
If the driver did make the demand and the passenger deceived him, he purposely and immorally (as a guest in someone else’s property) endangered the driver. In such a case, if the police knew what happened, they would presumably have penalized only the passenger. It might still not be certain that this is garmi, but many a dayan would obligate the passenger, based on his behavior, and the driver could make that demand.
Now to the ethics of the matter. We would hope a trempist’s attitude is as follows. “It is enough that the driver pays the car expenses, stopped for me, and might otherwise be inconvenienced by my presence. I am getting ‘a free ride.’ I certainly should not be even an indirect cause of any real loss.” Therefore, I would urge a passenger to offer to pay. In such a matter of general ethics, if the driver is well off and the passenger is poor, we might applaud if the driver turned down the offer.