On today’s daf, we examine who’s at fault when someone stumbles across an item left in the public thoroughfare and breaks it. The first mishnah of Bava Kamma chapter three reads:
In the case of one who places a vessel in the public domain and another person comes and stumbles on it and breaks it, the second person is exempt from paying for what he broke. And if the one who stumbled incurred damage by it, the owner of the vessel is liable to pay restitution for his damage.
Two important principles are laid out in this mishnah. First, a person who stumbles over an item in the public domain and breaks it is not liable to pay the owner of that vessel for the damage. Second, the owner is liable to pay damages if the person who stumbled got hurt. So if you leave your item lying around and someone else trips on it, it is you and not they who are likely to pay.
The Gemara asks:
Why is he (who damaged the vessel) exempt? Although this happened in the public domain, he should examine the road and then continue walking.
In other words, pedestrians should watch where they are going. Why shouldn’t we hold them responsible for tripping over other people’s items, even if they’re in the public domain?
In response to this concern, three sages suggest that the mishnah is referring to a more specific case in which we excuse the pedestrian from payment because stumbling over the vessel is difficult to avoid:
The sages of the school of Rav said in the name of Rav: The ruling of the mishnah is taught with regard to one who filled the entire public domain with barrels, blocking the path.
Shmuel says: The ruling of the mishnah is taught with regard to a case where he broke it in the dark.
Rabbi Yohanan says: The ruling of the mishnah is taught with regard to a case where the barrel was placed at the corner of the road (and so the pedestrian could not have seen it as he rounded the corner, before stumbling on it).
The Gemara suggests that the mishnah is not referring to every case of a private object lying in the public domain, but to cases when stumbling over such an object is understandable. Perhaps the road is blocked (Rav), or it’s dark out (Shmuel), or there’s a blind corner (Rabbi Yohanan).
And there’s another consideration: Where did the incident occur?
Rabbi Abba said to Rav Ashi that this is what they say in the West (the land of Israel) in the name of Rabbi Ulla, because the typical manner of people is not to examine the roads (because they assume the roads are unobstructed).
There was an incident in Neharde’a where a pedestrian stumbled on a jug in an open area and broke it, and Shmuel deemed him liable to pay for the damage. A similar incident took place in Pumbedita, and Rava deemed the person liable to pay.
According to the Gemara, in the land of Israel, where the Mishnah was written, people don’t watch where they’re going as carefully because the roads are generally unobstructed, and so they’re not responsible for damages if someone leaves a vessel in the roadway. In Babylonia, however, items are regularly left in the road, and so people are accustomed to watching out for them. Therefore, in Babylonia they’re liable for damages if they stumble over a vessel and break it. This limits the application of our mishnah to places where it is customary to keep roads cleared. But it does not apply in places like Babylonia where personal items are more likely to be left in the public domain.
The Gemara has now limited the mishnah in two important ways. First, by saying the accident was difficult to avoid, due to poor visibility or a crowded road surface. And second, by saying it applies specifically in the land of Israel, where roadways are customarily clear of private belongings. The law, as written in the mishnah, was too broad for the rabbis of the Gemara. Instead of objecting to it, they qualified it so that it fit their understanding of the world. But, in truth, it’s never a bad idea to watch where you’re going — both to avoid damaging items left in the way, and yourself, too.