By the Bais Hora'ah
Q. Reuven was driving down the street, when a pedestrian suddenly stepped out in front of him. He swerved to avoid the pedestrian, and sideswiped a car parked on the other side of the street. Is he liable for the damage to the parked car?
A. The halachah is that a person is only allowed to damage another person’s property in order to save himself if he intends to pay him for the damage. If he does, indeed, cause damage to another while saving himself, he must pay for that damage (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 380:3; 359:4). Although some poskim rule that if he is an oness in causing the damage, he is absolved from payment (ibid. 378:1), in a case in which he knew in advance that he would cause damage, he is not absolved and must pay for the damage he did (Shach ibid. 2).
Even someone trying to save his life from a potential murderer is required to pay for any damage he causes in the process.
But this is only true for the person being pursued. If a third party chases an assailant to stop him from murdering, and he causes damage during the pursuit, he is absolved of liability. Chazal were concerned that if a rescuer were required to pay for damages caused during the rescue mission, people would refrain from helping those in danger (ibid. 380:3).
Therefore, if an ambulance driver or even a private citizen driving to save someone from danger causes an accident, he is absolved from payment (Shu”t Shevet Halevi 9:293; see Issue #173).
Some poskim hold that this is true even if the damage is caused deliberately, as long as the rescuer’s intention was to save a person’s life (Nesivos ibid. 72:17 and 340:6). This would apply, for instance, to someone who drove over a lawn to reach the house of someone in mortal danger faster, knowing that his vehicle would cause damage to the landscaping.
Others say that this limitation of liability applies only to damage caused inadvertently to those blocking his path as he rushed to the victim’s aid, but if the damage was caused deliberately, he is required to pay (Meshovev Nesivos ibid.; Shu”t Amudei Ohr 115:10; see Igros Moshe Chosen Mishpat 2:63).
The poskim also debate whether Chazal’s limitation of liability applies to cases in which the rescuer was also in danger and was saving himself along with other potential victims when he caused the damage (Nesivos 340:6), or whether an enactment is unnecessary in such a case, because he certainly will not refrain from saving himself in order to avoid paying for damages (Pnei Yehoshua, Bava Kamma 60b; Minchas Pittim 340:3).
In our case, if Reuven’s intention was to save the life of the pedestrian, and he didn’t realize that he would cause damage to the parked car, he is certainly absolved from payment. If the pedestrian was negligent in walking into the street and he caused the driver to damage the parked car, it is considered at least a grama, which is required to pay latzeis yedei Shomayim (to avoid retribution in Heaven), and perhaps even beis din can obligate him to pay (see Hayashar v’Hatov v. 9, p. 57 and Mishpat Hamazik p. 593).
But if he knew that he would cause damage to the parked car, or if he was trying to save his own life in the process of saving the life of the other person, the halachah is a matter of dispute between the poskim and beis din cannot obligate him to pay.
If an oncoming car, not a pedestrian, strayed into Reuven’s lane, and it was obvious that the other driver’s life was never in danger, and he swerved to save himself, he is certainly required to pay for the damage caused to the parked car (Mishpat Hamazik 7:11).