This tornado damage to an Illinois home could be considered an "act of God" for insurance purposes in the United States, if the insurance policy did not specifically account for tornadoes.[1]

In legal usage in the English-speaking world, an act of God, act of nature, or damnum fatale ("loss arising from inevitable accident") is an event caused by no direct human action (e.g. severe or extreme weather and other natural disasters) for which individual persons are not responsible and cannot be held legally liable for loss of life, injury, or property damage.[2][3][4][5] An act of God may amount to an exception to liability in contracts (as under the Hague–Visby Rules),[6] or it may be an "insured peril" in an insurance policy.[7] In Scots law, the equivalent term is damnum fatale,[8] while most Common law proper legal systems use the term act of God.[9]

It is legally distinct from—though often related to—a common clause found in contract law known as force majeure.[10] In light of the scientific consensus on climate change, its modern legal applicability has been questioned by legal scholars.[11]

Contract law

In the law of contracts, an act of God may be interpreted as an implied defense under the rule of impossibility or impracticability. If so, the promise is discharged because of unforeseen occurrences, which were unavoidable and would result in insurmountable delay, expense, or other material breach.[12]

Under the English common law, contractual obligations were deemed sacrosanct, so failure to honor a contract could lead to an order for specific performance or internment in a debtor's prison. In 1863, this harsh rule was softened by the case of Taylor v Caldwell which introduced the doctrine of frustration of contract, which provided that "where a contract becomes impossible to perform and neither party is at fault, both parties may be excused their obligations". In this case, a music hall was burned down by act of God before a contract of hire could be fulfilled, and the court deemed the contract frustrated.[13]

In other contracts, such as indemnification, an act of God may be no excuse, and in fact may be the central risk assumed by the promisor—e.g., flood insurance or crop insurance—the only variables being the timing and extent of the damage. In many cases, failure by way of ignoring obvious risks due to "natural phenomena" will not be sufficient to excuse performance of the obligation, even if the events are relatively rare: e.g., the year 2000 problem in computers. Under the Uniform Commercial Code, 2-615, failure to deliver goods sold may be excused by an "act of God" if the absence of such act was a "basic assumption" of the contract, and the act has made the delivery "commercially impracticable".[14]

Recently, human activities have been claimed to be the root causes of some events previously considered natural disasters. In particular:

As a general principle of act of God,[17] epidemic can be classified as an act of God if the epidemic was unforeseeable and renders the promise discharged if the promisor cannot avoid the effect of the epidemic by exercise of reasonable prudence, diligence and care, or by the use of those means which the situation renders reasonable to employ.[18]

Tort law and delict law

UK – England and Wales

An act of God is an unforeseeable natural phenomenon. Explained by Lord Hobhouse in Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council as describing an event:

  1. which involves no human agency
  2. which is not realistically possible to guard against
  3. which is due directly and exclusively to natural causes and
  4. which could not have been prevented by any amount of foresight, plans, and care.

UK – Scotland

In Tennant v Earl of Glasgow (1864 2 M (HL) 22) Lord Chancellor Westbury described a case as: "what is denominated in the law of Scotland damnum fatale — occurrences and 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."[19]

United States

In the law of torts, an act of God may be asserted as a type of intervening cause, the lack of which would have avoided the cause or diminished the result of liability (e.g., but for the earthquake, the old, poorly constructed building would be standing). However, foreseeable results of unforeseeable causes may still raise liability. For example, a bolt of lightning strikes a ship carrying volatile compressed gas, resulting in the expected explosion. Liability may be found if the carrier did not use reasonable care to protect against sparks—regardless of their origins. Similarly, strict liability could defeat a defense for an act of God where the defendant has created the conditions under which any accident would result in harm. For example, a long-haul truck driver takes a shortcut on a back road and the load is lost when the road is destroyed in an unforeseen flood. Other cases find that a common carrier is not liable for the unforeseeable forces of nature. See Memphis & Charlestown RR Co. v. Reeves, 77 U.S. 176 (1870).

One example is that of "rainmaker" Charles Hatfield, who was hired in 1915 by the city of San Diego to fill the Morena reservoir to capacity with rainwater for $10,000.[20] The region was soon flooded by heavy rains, nearly bursting the reservoir's dam, killing nearly 20 people, destroying 110 bridges (leaving 2), knocking out telephone and telegraph lines, and causing an estimated $3.5 million in damage in total. When the city refused to pay him (he had forgotten to sign the contract), he sued the city. The floods were ruled an act of God, excluding him from liability but also from payment.[21]

See also


  1. ^ "Insurance: What exactly constitutes an "Act of God"?". CBS News. 30 July 2015. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  2. ^ "Definition of DAMNUM FATALE". Retrieved 19 May 2023.
  3. ^ "act of God". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 10 March 2024.
  4. ^ "act of God". Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Retrieved 6 June 2024.
  5. ^ "act of nature". Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Retrieved 6 June 2024.
  6. ^ Art. IV (2) "Neither the carrier nor the ship shall be responsible for loss or damage arising or resulting from: ... (d) Act of God"
  7. ^ Marine Insurance Act 1906 – Rules for construction of policy
  8. ^ Bryan A. Garner (2001). A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 918. ISBN 978-0-19-514236-5.
  9. ^ Black, Henry Campbell (1990). Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.). Saint Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co. p. 33. ISBN 0-314-76271-X.
  10. ^ LII / Legal Information Institute. “Force Majeure.” Retrieved January 21, 2024.
  11. ^ Dellinger, Myanna (2016). "An 'Act of God'? Rethinking Contractual Impracticability in an Era of Anthropogenic Climate Change". Hastings Law Journal. 67 (6). University of California, Hastings College of the Law: 1551–1620. Retrieved 6 June 2024.
  12. ^ "Tour de Force: What Constitutes an "Act of God," and Other Developments in Force Majeure Law". Pillsbury Law. Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  13. ^ "Taylor v Caldwell - 1863". Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  14. ^ "Force Majeure Clauses: Key Issues in Selected Commercial Transactions". Practical Law. Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  15. ^ "Beben nach Erdwärmeprojekt – Gericht spricht Schweizer Geologen frei". Der Spiegel. 22 December 2009. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  16. ^ Whitelaw, Claire; Robert Sanders (9 June 2008). "Javan mud volcano triggered by drilling, not quake". Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  17. ^ Gordon D. Kaufman Vol. 61, No. 2 (Apr., 1968), pp. 175–201
  18. ^ Starr, Samuel M. Tony; Roy, Alyssa B.; Leonard, Kaitlyn C.; Prober, Clare. "What the COVID-19 Pandemic Means for Force Majeure Provisions". Retrieved 2020-03-31.
  19. ^ "Hugh Tennent v. The Earl of Glasgow - [1864] UKHL 2_Paterson_1229 - United Kingdom House of Lords - Judgment - Law". CaseMine. Retrieved 24 June 2021.
  20. ^ "It's Raining Man!". San Diego History Center | San Diego, CA | Our City, Our Story. Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  21. ^ "The Great Flood of 1916 - South Bay Historical Society". Retrieved 28 February 2024.