UNPREDICTABLE ACCIDENTS: ACT OF GOD

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mudita Dubey is currently in her 4th Year pursuing BBA LL.B (Hons) from Amity University Jaipur

Abstract:

This article the author discusses about a legal defence under law of Torts which is often used in cases of Strict Liability and Negligence. Act of God is a consequence which cannot be predicted nor can be prevented by any reasonable amount of care. This term has given rise to considerable litigation over a period of time and holds the potential of reliving the defendant from the hook of the liabilities. The article explains the meaning and the essentials of the term and also throws the light on proximate and causation causes. It further mentions the doctrine of strict liability and negligence highlighting important case laws.

Introduction:

We all have experienced, heard of or read about the natural calamities like earthquakes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, droughts etc. When all these calamities tragically strike many lives are lost, properties are damaged. All these severe acts of nature blow, surprise both to direct victims and accused tortfeasors.  The lawyers sticking to the path of natural disasters discharging a wave of lawsuits namely suing every potential party except God. In response the defendants swiftly claims ‘Act of God’ as a defence to these lawsuits.

From centuries, ‘Act of God’ is used as a defence in cases of strict liability and negligence. The term ‘Act of God’ considerably holds a potential for relieving a defendant from the liability of the damaged sustained to plaintiff’s property or to the plaintiff. The exemption from the liability is based upon the rule which says that one should not be held responsible for which he cannot have been anticipated and guarded against.[1]Similarly if the defendant to negligent action proves that the loss occurred to plaintiff is solely due to ‘Act of God’ the defendant will not be held liable for the damage.

Legal Definition:

The term ‘Act of God’ was used first time in the Shelly’s case[2] by Sir Edward Coke for expressing the natural death of a man. The most common employed definition is an act of God which is of extra ordinary nature which could not be reasonably anticipated or foreseen.[3] The first element is the exclusion of every human element which limits the applicability of the term[4]. However not every occurrence of flood or wildfire may be considered as the defence of act of god as it is not necessary that every occurrence is of extraordinary nature, sometimes it can be also due to human interference. The second element is that an event which a reasonable human could not have been foreseen or prevent[5].

Inevitable Accidents and Act of God:

Many times inevitable accidents and act of god are used as synonymous however they are distinguishable meanings. As Act of God is solely due to natural forces there is no human interference whereas in the inevitable accidents has its origin from the acts of humans beings or natural forces. The term inevitable accident is a wider concept than the ‘Act of God’. However the term inevitable accident is all those accidents which reasonable foresight or any precaution could not prevent. For example – the damage caused by the floods in an act of god and an inevitable accident also. The collision of two ships in dark is inevitable accident but the same is not covered under ‘Act of God’.[6]

Proximate cause:

If the defendant claims that the incident is an ‘Act of God’ then he must prove that the ‘Act of God’ is a legal or proximate cause for the injury sustained by the plaintiff. However it is not necessary that the ‘Act of God’ has an immediate cause of harm. It is not enough to mention that the ‘Act of God’ had remote effect is causing the injury or damage. For example- a pilot negligently failed  to discover the weather conditions at the local airport and landed the plane in extreme high winds he was liable for the resulting damage caused to the plane where it was overturned by the winds[7]. Here both the defendant’s negligence and wind were proximate cause of damage.

Concurrent Cause:

The general rule states that when act of god is combined with negligence of defendant  to produce the injury, then the defendant will not be liable if the ‘Act of God’ would have independently produced the damage without the negligence of the defendant.[8] However the defendant will be liable if the mishap have been occurred in the absence of the negligence act.[9]

Case Law: Carlson Vs. A & P Corrugated Box Corp[10] – In this case the defendant’s negligence consist of a poor maintenance of a dam for which he was responsible of. The dam burst causing flooding, however the defendant claim that the flood was caused by the heavy rainfall occurred that day. The court held that the high waters was due to bursting of dam, hence defendant is liable.

Strict liability:

The doctrine of strict liability holds the party accountable for their actions. This doctrine is applied to products or situations which are extremely dangerous or hazardous. For such activities taking reasonable care cannot exempt the serious risk which can harm people. Strict liability does not covers the factors like intent to harm, knowledge about the same etc. Even if the defendant took reasonable care and followed all the necessary precautions the strict liability crimes are unique in nature and they still hold the defendant liable.

Case Law:

Rylands Vs. Flecther[11]– In this case lord Blackburn stated that the defendant can get away with the liability by establishing the proof that the consequence is due to plaintiff’s fault or that the situation occurred due to vis major[12] or due to ‘Act of God’[13]. After this judgement all these exceptions to the strict were established. And again the English Courts limited the ‘Act of God’ by eliminating the act of man and the burden of proof has been shifted from plaintiff to defendant to establish that the consequence was an ‘Act of God’.

Negligence:

Negligence is defined as failure to take reasonable care by the defendant, as it is the duty of the defendant to take reasonable amount of care and failure in which it amounts to breach of duty on the part of defendant. In simpler words it can be said that if any risk is foreseeable then the question becomes relevant how a reasonable person should act. The standard of care is a flexible concept as the amount of harm increases the magnitude of care should also increase. For example: only a minimum amount of care is required for a small stock- watering pond in an unpopulated rural area, while it would not justifiable to use minimal amount of care in designing, constructing and maintaining a large dam overlooking a major populated area.[14]The risk of mishap may increase due to external circumstances also. For instance a park is situated downstream from a stock- watering pond, the pond’s owner duty of care automatically increases. It is irrelevant that the particular accident has occurred before or not, the relevant part is that whether the mishap is foreseeable or not. Thus natural forces like floods, hurricanes etc. need not have previously struck a particular location for negligence. Liability may still exist if reasonable structure, design or maintenance procedures which have anticipated and can be prevented a structural failure.[15]

Relevant Case Laws:

Nichols v. Marshland[16]– In this case the defendant has few artificial lakes on his land. Rainfall occurs which is of extraordinary nature that has never been witnessed in that region. Due to the extraordinary rainfall the banks of the lakes burst and causing flood and the four bridges carried away with the water which belonged to plaintiff. It was held by the court that the bridges swept away was because act of god and not due to defendant’s lakes. Hence defendant is not liable.[17]

Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co[18]– in this case the defendant has constructed water pies which can withstand severe frost and are strong enough, that year unforeseeable frost occurs causing the water pipes to burst and as a result the property of the plaintiff sustains severe damage. It was held by the Court that the defendant is not liable as frost is a natural phenomenon and it is an ‘Act of God’.

Ramalinga Nadar v. Narayana  Reddiar[19]– The plaintiff had booked the defendant to transport his goods, while transporting the goods were looted by the mob, and it was beyond the control of defendant to save goods or prevent the theft. The court held that the destructive acts of mob cannot be covered by the ‘Act of God’.

Conclusion:

Negligence has increased swiftly in the recent years with the concepts of foreseeability. And the applicability of the defence ‘Act of God’ has shrunk with the rapid increase in the concepts of foreseeability. However in my view reasonable care must still be exercised with the current use of technology. The ‘Act of God’ are the accidents which are unpredictable and of extraordinary nature and which cannot be prevented with all the reasonable amount of care. However with the advancement of Science and technologies maybe it is possible one day to predict all these natural calamities and even control them up to a certain limit.


[1]  Louisville & N. Ry. v. Finlay, 237 Ala. 116, 185 So. 904 (1939); Oakes v. Peter

Pan Bakers, Inc., 258 Iowa 447, 138 N.W.2d 93 (1965).

[2]76 Eng. Rep. 206 (1581).

[3]Freifield v. Hennessy, 353 F.2d 97, 99 (3d Cir. 1965)

[4]Southern Pac. Co. v. Loden, 19 Ariz. App. 460, 508 P.2d 347 (1973)

[5]Friefield v. Hennessy, 353 F.2d 97, 99(3d Cir. 1965)

[6]Plaisted v. Boston & K. Steam Navigation Co., 27 Me. 132,

[7]Sky Aviation Corp. v. Colt, 475 P.2d 301 (Wyo. 1970).

[8]Kennedy v. Union Elec. Co., 358 Mo. 504

[9]Bushnell v. Telluride Power Co., 145 F.2d 950

[10]364 Pa. 216, 72 A.2d 290 (1950).

[11] 1868 LR 3HL 330 On its precise facts, Rylands appears to be an anomaly. Defendants constructed a reservoir on land underlain by abandoned mine shafts. Upon partial filling by the defendants, the shafts gave way under pressure, causing water to flow into defendants’ workings, and then into plaintiff’s mines.

[12] Inevitable accident

[13]Rylands, 1 L.R.-Ex. at 279-80.

[14]  Mayor of New York v.Bailey, 2 Denio 433, 440-41 (N.Y. 1845)

[15]Anderson v. Rucker Bros., 186 P; 293, 294, aff’g 183 P. 71 (Wash.

1919).

[16] (1876) 2 ExD1

[17]10 L.R.-Ex. 255 (1875).

[18](1856) 11 Ex Ch 781

[19](AIR 1971 Ker 197)

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