An event which is caused solely by the effect of nature or natural causes and without any interference by humans whatsoever.
Or, as set out in Tennant v. Earl of Glasgow, (House of Lords, 1864):
"Circumstances which no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the possibility, and which when they do occur, therefore, are calamities that do not involve the obligation of paying for the consequences that may result from them."
Insurance contracts often exclude acts of God from the list of insurable occurrences as a means to waive their obligations for damage caused by the onset of permanent illness, lightning, hurricanes, floods or earthquakes; all examples of acts of God.
Although there are several examples of good judicial definitions, the 1922 USA case of Woodruff v Oleite Corporation 192 NYS 189 is often cited:
"[S]omething which operates without any aid or interference of man, and when the loss occasioned is the result in any degree of human aid or interference, or if an act of human negligence contributed to the injury or, though the injury proceed directly from natural causes, if it might have been avoided by human prudence and foresight, it cannot be considered the act of God.
It is a well-understood physical fact that in this climate water in the pipes in an unheated building will freeze and burst the pipes in the winter season. Ordinary prudence and foresight would have led the person in possession of the building to shut off the water and drain the pipes. Had this been done, the extreme and unusual cold would not have caused the damage. Hence the defendant cannot escape liability on the plea that the injury was caused by an act of God."
For non-lawyers, and for the judiciary, the word has caused problems, as well described in the American case Goldberg v R. Grier Miller & Sons 408 PA 1 (1962):
"Judges and lawyers know that the phrase is not intended in its literal sense. (J)urors do not know this and when judges charge that a reputed accident may have been an act of God, there are many jurors who may be so awestricken by the concept of a divine manifestation that they cannot give to the facts the down-to-earth, tangible, mathematical analysis and deliberation which is required for a secular verdict.
"There are people who believe that every happening in the world is dictated by the Supreme Being and that therefore what is, is, and could not ever have been otherwise. There are sects so imbued with this concept ... that their members refuse even to summon a doctor when ill."
An example of the words act of God appearing in statutes is the Ontario regulation under the authority of the Highway Traffic Act, as follows:
"(A carrier of goods) shall not be liable for loss, damage or delay to any of the goods described in the contract of carriage caused by an act of God, the Queen's or public enemies, riots (or) strikes...."
Compare with the North Dakota Century Code, at 9-11-04.2, which prefers "irresistible superhuman cause" as an excuse for contractual nonperformance.
At the risk of annoying a few Internet users, we cannot resist (call it an act of God!) reproducing the following additional extract from the Goldberg case op. cit., because of the rare form and depth of judicial writing that it exhibits. At the altar of readability, the text has been edited slightly and most importantly, by removing parts which may identify quotes from other cases. Any person wishing to see the unaltered text ought to find the 1962 Pennsylvania law report, for which the cite is set out above:
"Man in his finite mind cannot pass upon the wisdom of the Infinite. There is something shocking in attributing any tragedy or holocaust to God. The ways of the Deity so surpass the understanding of man that it is not the province of man to pass judgment upon what may be beyond human comprehension. There are many manifestations of nature which science has not yet been able to analyze, much less cope with.
"In any event no person called into court to answer for a tort may find exoneration from the act of negligence charged to him by asserting that it was not he but the Supreme Being which inflicted the wound and the hurts of which the plaintiff complains.
"To instruct a jury to distinguish between what is commanded by the Lord and what is the result of man's carelessness is to intermingle religious loyalties with earthly considerations in such a manner as to produce results which may satisfy neither Church nor State.
"The phrase act of God, in the sense in which it is interpreted in the legal and commercial world, did not have its genesis in the law. It emerged from the chrysalis of the primitive mind groping for comprehension in the primordial misty days when man sought to adjust to the universe and he craved explanation of what to him was unexplainable. In this failure to understand, innate intelligence was supplanted by superstition which proceeded to attribute to the heavens all that could not be spelled out in the blundering, amorphous language of the age. Thus, when the thunder blasted and the horizon cavernously echoed; when the lightning severed the skies in zigzag tumult, man said that God was angry and then if, in the accompanying electric storm, a tree crashed to the ground, man said that the Supreme Ruler had targeted it with a bolt of wrath.
"As time passed, persons with cunning and cupidity sought to avail themselves of this superstition in order to avoid a responsibility which was the result of their own failings and neglect. If, for instance, a proprietor neglected to properly maintain a strong bridge over a stream on his land and the bridge broke, drowning a traveler, the proprietor would respond to charges of negligence by stating that rains had swollen the stream and since the rains were caused by God, the proprietor could not be held liable for what God had done.
"But the fact is that heavy rains are not so unusual that one cannot anticipate them and prepare against the damage they can wreak. Whether the land-owner makes adequate preparation against a predictable heavy storm is always a question of ascertainable fact. The same is true when heavy snows intervene. The person who builds a house in the North Temperate Zone with a roof so feebly constructed and so loosely moored that it will give way beneath the weight of a seasonable accumulation of frozen precipitation, injuring or killing his guest, cannot blame the fall of his roof on Providence and say that the collapse of his house was an act of God.
"Nor can he say that since the snow is a fact and the disaster is a fact, this collaboration speaks of what it was beyond his human power to avert.
"For many centuries there has been a philosophic debate between the respective proponents of determinism and free will, but it should be quite obvious that if there were no free will, there could be no reason for courts since in that event neither plaintiff nor defendant could have done anything to avoid what was already destined to take place. If there were no free will, every criminal penalty would be unjust, and thus even Adolf Eichmann would have to be a subject of sympathy instead of one of eternal loathing.
"Of course, on the other hand, it is a matter of the most elementary knowledge that there do occur manifestations of nature of such unpredictable violence and fury that no man's efforts could prevent them and, in that inability to prevent, there can naturally be no legal responsibility for the damage they inflict. Thus, if a wind of cyclonic proportions uproots a healthy and sturdy oak on A's land and carries it to B's land, damaging his house, A would not be liable to B since there was conceivably (at least in the present state of science) nothing he could do to prevent the cyclone or to anchor the tree. However, if the wind is one which is ordinarily to be anticipated in the season ... of its occurrence, a different fact situation presents itself.
"In the case of Fitzpatrick v. Penfield, 267 PA 564, the wall of a building which had been ravaged by fire was allowed to remain upstanding unguarded. A strong wind bore it to the ground, killing the son of the plaintiff playing at its base. The landowner, in answering the charge of negligence in not having taken the necessary safeguards to prevent the wall from collapsing, asserted non-liability because, inter alia, of the intervention of the high wind.
"(The) court said: 'High winds are not of infrequent occurrence and this particular wind was termed an ordinary wind occurring three or four times in a year.... One who fails in his duty to remedy a defective or dangerous condition is liable for injuries resulting therefrom although the immediate cause of the injury is the wind. The causal connection (is) not broken and the original wrongdoer (is) liable for the injury sustained.'
"Whether the intervening cause of an injury is wind, snow, storm or sea, the test in tort cases remains the same: Did the defendant do all that a reasonable person could have been expected to do to avoid the happening which is the cause of the plaintiff's injuries? If he did, he is not liable in damages. If he did not, he is liable.
"The English language is rich, not poor. In its vast wardrobe there are words with which to clothe every thought, concept and phenomenal thing so as to make that thing readily identifiable by the jury no matter how lacking in formal or higher education it might be. Thus we have storms, tempests, tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes, blizzards, monsoons, typhoons, twisters, siroccos, gales, southwesters, duststorms, snowstorms, sandstorms, whirlwinds, wind eddies not to mention tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and all the other pyrotechnical spectacles of nature which at times turn the world into a stage of colossal drama, were it not that the resulting human suffering robs the blazing scenes of theatrical perspective.
"Not only is there no need, but it is actually confusing, to tell the jury that they must determine whether a given mundane turbulence is an act of God. The jury is not chosen to determine what should be rendered unto Caesar and what is to be rendered unto God. The Trial Judge should instruct the jury that they are to decide whether the alleged blizzard (if a blizzard is blamed for the proved damage), or the cloudburst (if a cloudburst is accused of upsetting the normal state of affairs), or whatever phenomenon in the meteorological armory is accused of doing the damage. The judge is to direct the jury to decide whether that phenomenon of weather was so unpredictable, so extensive, and so unprecedented in vehemence and destructive fury that the defendant could not have made preparations to prevent or mitigate the catastrophic effects.
"It obviously would be no answer, for instance, against a charge of negligence for a shipowner to say, in the event of the foundering of his vessel with loss of life and cargo, that he never expected that the ship would enter into a storm which would bring the water above certain gaping holes in the hull of his craft since he is required to know that the surface of the sea, lake or river on which he is to navigate, could rise, on account of winds or currents, above the normal waterline.
"Nor is it any answer against a charge of negligence for the owner of a building in Pennsylvania merely to say that snow accumulated on its roof and this caused it to collapse. In Pennsylvania snow in the wintertime is to be expected as certainly as flowers bloom in the spring. The question which arises is: Was the snow of such volume and unpredictable height or depth that the building owner could not have anticipated so arctic a demonstration and therefore could not have been expected to prepare against it?
"What must be kept constantly in mind, in cases of this character, is that if the defendant urges the interposition of ravaging terrestrial forces, speaking through the awesome and gigantic megaphones of rain, snow, sleet, ice, storm, tempest or hurricane, he must prove his assertion. If, as in the case at bar, he claims that there fell a snow of such height, weight and burden that no normal knowledge or vision would have foreseen it and, therefore, there would have been no need to build a roof of maximum massiveness to counteract and protect against so unimaginable a snow, he must prove that claim.
"It is the burden of the party asserting an act of God as a defense to come forward with the proof as to its effect. Unless he does so, the act of God avails him nothing if his negligent conduct contributed to the damage.
"An extraordinary flood, amounting to an act of God, is one whose comings are not foreshadowed by the usual course of nature, and whose magnitude and destructiveness could not have been anticipated or provided against by the exercise of ordinary foresight."