Suppose you were at a restaurant and, as you were enjoying your meal, you suddenly felt tremors coming up the floor. Sure enough, the restaurant is about to be struck by an earthquake. As the building shudders on its foundations, part of the ceiling collapses and strikes you on the head. While the injuries you suffer are not all that serious, you do need an overnight stay in a hospital, and you’re not able to work for a couple of days while you recover. In most cases, you can hold the restaurant liable for damages and expenses for an injury suffered on their property.
But here’s the catch: the restaurant is not liable for injuries suffered in the above example. Instead, this would be attributed to an “act of God”. You might think it a strange turn-of-phrase for a courtroom, but it carries a specific legal definition and set of considerations for a case.
Taking God to Court
Naturally, you can’t really sue God (the Almighty lacking an address). So what does it mean in court when something is chalked up to such an act? Strictly speaking, an “act of God” is a legal term used to describe very specific circumstances when examining a claim. In most cases, it can be described as any situation that causes injury, damages, or loss where:
• No human agency was involved in the act
• The defendant could not possibly have foreseen or guarded against the event
• The damages were completely natural in cause
• Under any other circumstances, injury would not have occurred
So, returning to our case in the restaurant, how would this affect your case? Let’s say that the restaurant is in a state where earthquakes are exceedingly rare. The restaurant owners, upon being called to court, can say that your injuries were not a result of any action on their part, and given that earthquakes are so uncommon, that they could not have been reasonably expected to guard against it. Failing to protect against hurricanes in Idaho, after all, could hardly be seen as negligent. As such, they waive liability due to this “act of God”.
If this were a state where earthquakes are common, such as California, then the restaurant owners could be liable if it was found that they’d not taken sufficient precautions to protect their building against earthquakes. In this case, even if they can’t predict when an earthquake will occur, they can surmise that earthquakes are a problem they’d need to protect against. However there are cases where even restaurants in other areas may nevertheless still be required to pay damages as a result of this natural disaster.
Strict liability, for example, would hold that an injury suffered is the fault of the restaurant owners irrespective of their origins because they created the events that led up to it. Perhaps on further investigation, in this case, it turns out that the restaurant owners had known that that section of the ceiling had needed repair and had simply put those repairs off. As a result, even if they didn’t cause the earthquake, they would have created the circumstances where the tremor would dislodge the bit of plaster that sent you to the hospital.
Seeking Further Advice
This is only a very brief summary of acts of God and how they can affect your claim. Different states and municipalities have their own legal variations on this occurrence. While there are too many variations to list here, there are places you can turn to for help.
If you’ve suffered an injury and are seeking further advice on your claim, seeking the advice of a legal professional can help ensure that you understand the statutes at hand and your chances. Most personal injury firms like Heil Law offer free consultations for exactly this reason — to determine if you have a case and to prepare you to win it.
Christian Mills is a freelance writer and family man who contributes articles and advice on a variety of topics from DIY projects to the challenges and blessings of home ownership and family life.