Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Acts Of God

Flood, fire, and famine may be the traditional hallmarks of divine intervention, but the law has a very specific definition of what count as actions by the Almighty. Legally, "Acts of God" are "misfortunes and accidents arising from inevitable necessity which human prudence could not foresee or prevent" - in other words "bad luck." The earliest recorded use of the term "Act of God" was by Sir Edward Coke in 1581; he used the term to refer to death, and later extended it to include a sudden tempest that broke down sea walls. In 1899 the Virginia Supreme Court had the opportunity to address the Act of God question when it excused a reluctant groom from his promise to marry because the unfortunate fellow had contracted a urinary disease that was aggravated by sexual intercourse. As the blushing Court states: "I desire to speak with all reserve: but to possess the lawful means of gratifying a powerful passion, with the alternative of abstaining or periling life, is, indeed, to incur a risk of intense misery, instead of mutual comfort."

Similarly, in 1931 the Virginia Supreme Court came to a widow's aid, when it made her deceased husband's life insurance company pay. The insurance company tried to avoid the insurance contract by a provision that required prompt notice of incapacity even from a person who was too incapacitated to give any notice. The court quotes: "The primary purpose of all insurance is to insure or to provide for indemnity, and it should be remembered that, if the letter killeth, the spirit giveth life."

Most Act of God defenses involve extraordinarily violent storms, sudden tempests, severe frosts, great droughts, lightening, earthquakes, sudden death and illness. Or, a remarkable "freshet"? A railroad company successfully argued that the sweeping away of a privy with one of their employees inside was excused because a freshet with this volume of water pouring through the creek could not have been anticipated.

To successfully employ the Act of God defense, one must have been victim of a natural cause without human intervention that could not have been prevented by exercise of reasonable care and foresight. So, ironically, a devout worshiper who testified that he was trotting through his church under the Spirit of the Lord when he injured a fellow congregant was not permitted to use "Act of God" as a defense.

Should an atheist be allowed to make the Act of God argument? Maybe an agnostic judge should decide the issue.


To learn more about Acts of God or to speak to one of the lawyers at Gross & Romanick, call 703-273-1400 or fill out our online Information Request form here.