Of Cats, Cattle, and Craters

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

There is a worrying epidemic called “high-rise syndrome” that affects many New York families. Cases are more prevalent in the summer months. One New York City hospital reported three to five new cases a week in the summer. The sad part is that, according to experts, it is almost entirely preventable. The good news is that the survival rate for high-rise syndrome can be as great as 90 percent. What exactly is this malady? It is the phenomenon of cats falling out of windows that are more than two stories high. What leads to the high survival rate for high-rise syndrome? For starters, whereas the so-called terminal velocity (maximum falling speed) of a man in free-fall is about 130 mph, that of a falling cat is about 60 mph. This is due in part to their small size, light bone structure, and thick fur. Further, a cat may spread out its body mid-fall to increase drag and slow its descent. Another trick in the cat’s arsenal is the ability to right itself while it is falling. A cat can orient itself to land on its feet, preventing cat-astrophe. A study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association examined 132 cases of cats that had fallen out of high-rise windows and were brought to the Animal Medical Center, a New York veterinary hospital, for treatment. On average, the cats fell 5.5 stories, yet 90 percent survived. (Many did suffer serious injuries.) When the vets analyzed the data, they found that, as one would expect, the number of broken bones and other injuries increased with the number of stories the cat had fallen – up to seven stories. Above seven stories, however, the number of injuries per cat sharply declined. In other words, past a certain height, the farther the cat fell, the better its chances of escaping serious injury.

The authors explained this by saying that after falling five stories or so, the cats reached terminal velocity. Thereafter, they hypothesized, the cats relaxed and spread themselves out and assumed the best position for impact, minimizing injuries. (Some have disagreed with the vets’ interpretation, pointing out that the study is only based on cats brought to the hospital. Cats that fall from above seven stories will either be in somewhat good shape with a decent chance of survival or will be in an obvious cat-atonic state, in which case they wouldn’t be brought to the hospital at all. This skews the statistics.) The ability to assume the most beneficial position for impact mid-fall is not limited to cats. It can apply to bulls, as well. The Gemara in Bava Kama discusses the liability of one who digs a pit in a public thoroughfare (reshus ha’rabbim), that is at least 40 inches (10 tefachim) deep. If an ox falls into the pit and dies, the one who dug the pit must pay damages. (There are many conditions that are beyond the scope of this article.) Rav said that one is responsible only for damage caused by the noxious air commonly found in a pit. Shmuel says that one is also held liable for damage caused by the physical impact with the bottom of the pit. The Gemara (later in the mesechta) says that the practical difference between the two opinions is in a case where one made a 40-inch hill with a cliff in middle of a public thoroughfare. If an ox walked up the hill and fell off the cliff, Shmuel would say the creator of that hill must pay damages for the ox, whereas Rav would say the creator is exempt. The reason is that since we are discussing an above-ground fall, there is no noxious air present. According to Rav, the Torah does not obligate the creator of an obstacle in reshus ha’rabbim to pay for damage that came about because of an impact with the ground and is only obligated for damage due to the noxious air that he caused to be present by the digging of a pit. But in Shmuel’s opinion, the creator of the hill is liable for the damage caused by the impact. Rashi asks the obvious question: Why didn’t the Gemara say the practical difference between Rav and Shmuel is where an ox fell into a pit and broke its bones?

Obviously, the breaking of the bones was caused by the impact of the fall and not by noxious fumes. Wouldn’t Rav say that the one who dug the pit is absolved from responsibility for the broken bones, since they were not caused by the fumes? Shmuel, on the other hand, who holds that the digger of a pit is liable even for damage caused solely by impact, would say that the digger must pay. The answer, according to Rabbeinu Peretz, is that we generally assume that the noxious air in a pit plays a role in any injuries sustained by the falling animal. If not for the fumes breathed in by the animal, the animal would have better positioned itself and avoided injuries. Even in mid-fall, the ox could have reoriented itself somewhat to avoid major injuries if not for the hindrance to its mental faculties caused by the fumes. Although the fumes are only a contributing factor and we can’t be certain that the fumes did indeed play a role, nevertheless the digger of the pit is obligated to pay. For, if not so, according to Rav, there would never be an obligation for the digger of a pit to pay any damages. He could always claim that the damage was not caused by fumes. How could we refute him? Yet we know that the Torah does indeed obligate the creator of a pit to pay damages in at least some cases. It must be that if it is possible that the fumes played a role in the injuries sustained by the ox, the Torah obligates the digger of the pit to pay. So, even according to Rav, the creator of a pit must pay for all physical injuries to the animal, because we can argue that the fumes stopped the animal from taking preventive measures. This article barely scratches the surface of the cat-egory of damages called bor, but hopefully it was enough of a cat-alyst to make you crave meow-re.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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