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Act of God as Sole Proximate Cause of Harm

“Act of God” is a legal principle used to denote events occurring outside of human control.  The effects of natural causes such as tornadoes, heavy floods and perils of the sea, severe ice storms, and lightning fires are considered acts of God.  This principle has implications in cases of contractual obligations and tortious liability.

An act of God is extraordinary and devoid of human agency.  The damage caused by an unforeseen and uncontrollable natural event is not compensable as it could not have been prevented or avoided by foresight or prudence.  However, if the loss was caused by a foreseeable accident that could have been prevented, the party who suffered the loss has the right to be compensated.

One can refrain from performing a contractual obligation if it is unworkable due to an act of God, where as, liability shall be raised over foreseeable results of unforeseeable causes by applying the rules of “reasonable care” and “strict liability.”  According to Sir Frederick Pollock, an inevitable accident is “an accident not avoidable by any such precautions as a reasonable man, doing such an act then there, could be expected to take.”  The test is to decide if natural forces were extraordinary and unusual on a particular occasion and whether or not human foresight and care could have prevented the loss that resulted.

Failure to take the necessary precautions constitutes negligence.  In an incident where a human factor was present, even though the harm could not be prevented, the fact that the human actor exercised reasonable care and cautions to prevent the harm has to be proved if the defense of “act of God” has to prevail.  If negligence is alleged and proved, the defense of “act of God” will fail.  If a home owner was negligent in properly maintaining a tree that fell on a passer by, s/he cannot be exempted from liability by “act of God” principle.

In Travelers Indem. Co. v. Maho Machine Tool Corp., 952 F.2d 26 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1991), there was a contract between the defendant and another party over sale of a machine.  As per the contract, the defendant was obliged to transport the machine to Singapore.  The machine was insured with plaintiff upon a condition to pay 125 percent of the costs in the event of a loss.  When the machine arrived, it was damaged by rust, and defendant’s engineer said return to Germany for repairs was necessary.  The plaintiff paid the policy amount, became a subrogee and initiated recovery actions, but the claim was dismissed.  Upon appeal, the Court contended that defendant’s replacement offer was legally deficient as an offer of cure because it sought to impose upon the buyer the substantial cost of returning the damaged machine to Germany and the further cost of transporting the replacement machine to Singapore, even though the buyer had no duty to spare defendant those costs.  The trial court’s dismissal was reversed by the appellate Court.

In Clark v. Multnomah County Assessor, 17 Or. Tax 72, 2002 WL 1445202 (Magistrate Div. 2002), the Court decided that the flooding of a house was not an act of God where it was caused by the breakage of a pipe fitting in the house.  The cause of harm was evidenced by the fact that a repairman had worked with the part that broke just hours earlier.

Inside Act of God as Sole Proximate Cause of Harm