Saturday, December 17, 2011

What is "an Act of God"?

These TV news writers have a bit of fun here with the legal phrase, "act of God," invoked by the city government in order to avoid compensating their victim - who happens to be a minister - for the damage their falling street light did to his car.

Of course, the colorful legal phrase has nothing to do with God. "It was an act of God" doesn't mean "Jesus wrecked your car." It's mainly about forseeability.

More importantly, it seems to my amateur judgement that the City of Forth Worth is misusing the concept as well. As I understand it, an act of God is a natural event that has harmful consequences, which event was a) not forseeable and which b) the plaintiff had no duty to guard against. Nothing like that seems to be going on here.

I think the Rev. should see a lawyer.


Alex said...

This video raises so many questions. Since the religious place their lives in God’s hands, should they accept all bad things that happen to them, even if caused by other people or negligence? According to Christianity, if good people die, then they go to Heaven, and if bad people die they will presumably go to Hell. So why should there be laws against murder? What is the purpose of courts or prisons if God will see to it that justice prevails, if God will ensure that the right thing happens? Why must we bother enforcing any semblance of justice on this Earth?

How anti-this-world Christianity truly is.

Matt Olver said...

My father had a similar experience. Ironically at my great-grandma's funeral. His truck was parked at the cemetery while he was at the funeral service in the cemetery and a guy driving down the road outside the cemetery had a heart attack and crashed into my father's truck causing some damage to the truck. The guy who had the heart attack lived, but his insurance refused to cover the damage saying the situation was "an act of God". So insurance companies definitely use this kind of reasoning too. Who is to say the guy wasn't a glutton who might have been overweight on his own doing or had high blood pressure and bad cholesterol after years of personal health mismanagement?

Lester Hunt said...

Matt, My gut reaction is to say that the insurance company was right, a heart attack is an act of God in my sense, though it is also true, as you point out, that it can be (at least partly) due to bad life syle choices.

Anonymous said...

[Follow up on our private exchange}: Notice that nowhere in the piece did anyone except the journalists suggest that the claim was rejected because of an act of God. I think they just cooked this up because the prospective plaintiff was religious. I suspect that it actually wasn't and that this is another example of almost uniformly terrible legal affairs journalism in this country. In all likelihood, the claim was barred under the Texas Tort Claims Act. Before some Supreme Court cases modified the doctrine, the old rule was that states and their subdivisions are simply immune from liability because they are sovereigns, unless the state expressly *waives* the immunity by legislation. The Texas Tort Claims Act contains some waivers of this sort, probably including liability for public workmen negligence. In this case, the private cause of action would probably have been strict liability, not negligence (if I built such a structure as this on my front lawn and it overhung your driveway, no matter how careful I was, how non-negligent, I would still be strictly liable if it fell on your car, trespass issues aside). I'm guessing that the statute does not include a waiver for strict liability for the state, so the guy here would have to prove negligence, but couldn't. The journalists seem to have confused "not subject to strict liability because of immunity without waiver" with "act of God." I also think "act of God" really comes up more often in *contracts* not torts, as in Mr. Oliver's example. above.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks for your wise and learned comment. I've often noticed the sorry state of legal journalism. For some reason it really seems to be worse than scientific journalism. One really annoying offense is their habit of reporting the results of a judge's decision without saying anything about the reasons the judge gave for -- as if they don't realize that the part of a novel decision that becomes the law of the land and affects all of us is not that Joe Blow lost his case, but the principles that lay behind his defeat.

Lester Hunt said...

BTW, I thought Matt's story was a torts case, and not contract, as the insurance company was saying their client was not at fault for the accident.