411: Acts of God
In personal injury law, when we talk about an “act of God,” we are not talking about a Biblical instance such as God parting the ocean – unless, of course, the splitting of the ocean caused flooding to the home of someone who then wanted to pursue legal recourse due to the flooding. Instead, in law, an “act of God” refers to an event that is out of human control for which no human can be held legally responsible. These might include flash floods, tornadoes, and other forms of natural disasters. Because the events, however horrible they may be, were not a product of human production, a human cannot be held legally liable.
Let’s look at two examples to clarify the issue.
In the first example, a man hires a plumbing company to fix the pipes in two of the toilets in their house. The plumbing company is negligent in their work and, as a result, the house floods. The plumbers fail to clean up the mess and the family members come home, walk into the house, slip on the wet floors and hurt themselves. In this case, the family can absolutely sue the plumbing company – it was their negligence that led to the injury of the family members.
In the second example, let’s say that a family is fast asleep one night, when suddenly, a flash flood occurs. In the morning, the family wakes up, walks downstairs, and slips on the now-slippery floor, injuring themselves. If there are no extenuating circumstances somehow implicating anyone else in the slippery floor, the family has little legal recourse, given that the flooding was caused by a flash flood, an act of God, other than to hopefully collect money from their insurance company, assuming they have the added flood insurance. (Be aware that many basic insurance policies do NOT cover Acts of God and, unless you opt for the added protection, you may find yourself out of luck if faced with the aftermath of a harmful Act of God).
While acts of God generally alleviate the likelihood of guilt on the part of any humans, there are instances in which people or companies may be held liable for (at least part of) the damage caused by an act of God. For example, let’s say poorly constructed oil transportation truck is driving down a highway. Suddenly, hurricane ensues, and the truck is pushed off to the side of the road by the high winds. Meanwhile, because the truck was built in such a flimsy manner, the oil begins to leak and causes great harm to the area. In this case, while the hurricane was certainly an act of God, the oil transport company might very well be held at least partially liable; oil is known to be a harmful substance and while the company could not have anticipated a hurricane when the truck was built, it should certainly have built the truck with a more sound structure regardless of any anticipated harm.
Relatedly, the “act of God” presence in the legal system can also free someone from liability. In the early 20th century, a man was hired to completely fill a San Diego reservoir with water. The area was soon thereafter saw major flooding, causing the reservoir to nearly burst and wreaking havoc on phone lines, bridges, and causing many deaths and injuries. A court later ruled that the man could not be held responsible for the damage, despite his recent work on the reservoir which caused all of the harm, because the flooding was an act of God which he could not have reasonably foreseen.
For more questions about these or any other personal injury-related issues, please contact us at the Law Offices of Aronberg & Aronberg by calling 561-266-9191 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.