The act of God legal term is defined as an unpreventable natural disaster such as a tsunami, earthquake, tornado, volcano, or hurricane. In most cases, an act of God includes any type of unpredictable natural phenomenon. Acts of God should not be confused with unavoidable accidents, which have an element of human intervention.

Act of God Provisions

Contract clauses that limit liability in response to acts of God are also known as force majeure clauses. In construction contracts, this is often used to legally delay work, complete a construction project, or fulfill an obligation. Acts of God are not covered by most insurance policies. Sometimes, the court may hear arguments about whether a particular storm or event was foreseeable.

When a contract cannot be performed or faces additional expense or delay because of an act of God, the court may discharge the promise to perform. This may mean a refund or extension is necessary, but neither party would be considered liable for the breach.

Some contracts remain valid even when an act of God occurs, such as an insurance policy designed to protect against these instances. However, the policy may limit the amount of damage covered, the timing of the coverage, and/or the types of events covered. These limits must be in the original contract and cannot be enforced after a major, widespread event. If your insurer attempts to limit coverage after you've been affected by a disaster, consult an experienced attorney.

Act of God and Torts

In the U.S., tort laws are sometimes impacted by acts of God. These type of laws govern damages for personal injury. If an act of God causes an injury without human intervention, this is a valid defense for the person accused of causing the injury. For example, if a person is injured in a car accident after losing control on an icy road, the icy conditions are considered the act of God and the manufacturer would not be liable.

Individuals cannot avoid tort liability when they could have reasonably foreseen and prepared for the incident in question. For example, a building owner could be liable if a lightning strike causes injury to occupants and proper precautions were not taken prior to the storm.

Act of God Defense

When damages to a plaintiff are caused by a natural catastrophe, the defendant can claim an act of God. Human action must have had no hand in the occurrence in question, which was inevitable. This means it could not have been prevented if the defendant took additional care. In addition, the disaster must have been the sole cause of the damage, not a mere factor among other contributing factors.

This defense prevents a jury from blaming a party for an accident he or she could not have controlled. Although this defense is rare, its prevalence may rise as global warming causes an increase in weather-related natural disasters.

One of the reasons the act of God defense is rarely used is because it is so difficult to prove that storm damage could not have been prevented with human intervention. If this type of defense is successful, however, the plaintiff will not receive damages from the defendant.

Cases in which the act of God defense was used include:

  • Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Company vs. Texas Star Flour Mills, in which the Texas civil appellate court found that the transportation companies were not responsible for damages after heavy rain removed the roof of a train car and damaged the flour shipment it carried.
  • The Texarkana Court of Appeals found that injuries did not result from an act of God in Macedonia Baptist Church vs. Gibson. Nora Gibson was damaged by a lightning rod and cable attached to the church steeple. The improperly installed system contributed to her injuries even though a storm was also a factor.
  • Luther Transfer and Storage vs. W.H. Walton resulted in damages for the plaintiff when items in his storage space were damaged by a heavy rainfall. The court found that the damage was not solely caused by an act of God because the poorly designed storage space also played a role.

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