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Suppose Fred is in danger of death or injury, and the most direct way to avoid that fate involves stealing or damaging property belonging to Ernie, an uninvolved person.

Examples:

  • Fred is being pursued by a would-be assailant on foot, and finds Ernie's bicycle unlocked. Fred can steal the bicycle to enable a quick escape from the pursuer.

  • Fred is in a car whose brakes stop working. The most direct way to avoid crashing into something hard is to intentionally crash into Ernie's fruit stand.

Questions:

  1. Is this action by Fred allowed?

  2. Does Fred have to compensate Ernie afterward?

  3. Does the likelihood or not of actual death to Fred if he doesn't steal or damage matter to 1 and 2? What if the worst possible consequence is just injury?

  4. Does it matter how Fred got into the dangerous situation, e.g. through pure accident, his own negligence, someone else's negligence, or someone else's malice?

(Inspired by this question and this challenge.)

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Yes, the examples are inspired by action movie cliches. Sorry. –  Isaac Moses Jan 3 '12 at 19:17
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don't worry about it. When studying Bava Kama I once had a dream about "The Zorro special edition of Bava Kama, covering all sorts of cases of violent mayhem." –  Shalom Jan 3 '12 at 22:30
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@Shalom: then too, there's the "evil mastermind" section of Sanhedrin (76b-78a), featuring all kind of inventive ways to kill the hero... –  Alex Jan 4 '12 at 1:26
    
@Alex yeah I think next time I go through that sugya I should grow a mustache just for twirling ... –  Shalom Jan 4 '12 at 1:27
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@Alex: "You expect me to go through the whole sugya and understand the difference between grama and dina degarmi?!" "No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die." –  Shalom Jan 4 '12 at 1:58
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2 Answers

This is called מציל עצמו בממון חבירו, saving yourself at the expense of someone else's property. Fred is indeed liable to pay Ernie for any damages, even if he was trying to save his own life (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 380:3), and certainly if it was just to save his own property from theft or confiscation (ibid. 292:8 and and 388:2).

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Just to back Alex up:

  1. Yes it's allowed. The simple understanding is that the obligation to save a life overrides virtually all commandments, which would include "don't steal" or "don't damage your neighbor's property." There is some discussion about this, but that appears to be our conclusion. (Yet the Gemara seems to have debated it; either we conclude it's permitted, or the Gemara was talking of a case where the probability of saving a life was very, very slight.)

  2. Yes, Fred must compensate Ernie. The Gemara says "don't let your neighbor's ox get lost" means you have to put effort into saving his property, and therefore certainly you must put effort into saving his life. (So you have to expend gufo, your bodily effort.) When the Torah then says "don't stand idly by your neighbor's life", that goes further to require you to rent ("not just b'gufo, rather l'radya) property to save him (e.g. you have to rent a speedboat, hail a taxi, or whatever). The usual formulation is expending effort or money ("b'gufo/b'mamono"), here it's effort or rental, implying you don't have to write off the loss! You send the bill to Ernie.

  3. This gets tricky. Again according to some interpretations, the Gemara (Bava Kama 60b) records a discussion regarding King David wanting to damage a whole lot of third-party property to increase his military tactical advantage by a small amount. We violate the Sabbath or the like even if there's a one-in-a-hundred chance it will save a life or limb. (But within reason; one-in-a-billion doesn't do it -- there were those who wanted to delay burial 72 hours for the super-rare case that the corpse was actually just in a super-deep coma. Come on already.) At the expense of someone else's property though, that's complicated.

  4. This is again tricky, let's try to break it down.

    • To expose your own life to "some risk" to save a person in "serious danger" is meritorious, but not required (per Meshech Chochmah). To expose yourself to danger equal to or greater than the person currently at risk is inadvisable. (Of course in the movies the action hero knows that he'll survive the movie, whereas the fellow he's trying to save may die if this is supposed to be a tragic-hero type.)
    • If you don't think you'll get the money back, then there's only so much you'd be obligated to spend to do the mitzva of saving a life.
    • In some situations, you can save this person today but it will do little. (Maybe you can keep the mob from breaking his legs today, but if you do so tomorrow he'll just rob more from them and they'll kill him.) I'm not sure how that factors into it.
    • If someone is trying to do something that's wrong, but is likely to suffer more spiritual effects than they intended, it is meritorious, but not required for me to take action to prevent this. (The parallel that first comes to mind is offering a needle-exchange program.) Per Rabbi JD Bleich's "the case of the poisoned sandwich", some rabbis say the same applies to physical damage -- if he wants to do something he shouldn't be, it's not my problem if he falls and breaks his neck. Others would say that you're obligated to protect someone from physical harm (barring the above limitations) regardless.
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