What is the Act of God Defense?
The act of God defense applies when a violence of nature causes the plaintiff’s damage. The harm must be inevitable, and must occur without human intervention. The defendant must be unable to prevent the harm by exercising reasonable foresight or care. This means that the act of nature must be the sole cause of the accident not just a contributing factor. See McWilliams v. Masterson, 112 S.W.3d 214 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2003).
The defense is in place to allow a jury to refuse to place blame on a party if the evidence shows that the accident was beyond that party’s control.
What Happens When the Unavoidable Accident Argument is Successful?
Damages resulting from an act of God are not chargeable to anyone. A defendant does not have to pay any damages to the plaintiff if the jury finds that the defendant can successfully use the act of God defense. This means that the plaintiff will not be able to receive any compensation from the defendant.
Texas Case where the Defendant could use the Act of God Defense:
In Gulf, C. & S. F. RY. Co. v. Texas Star Flour Mills, the Court of Civil Appeals of Texas held that Gulf, Colorado & Santa De Railway Company could use the act of God defense to escape liability. The railway company was transporting flour for the plaintiff on a train. A terrible storm took the roof off the train car that the flour was being transported in. The heavy rain destroyed the flour. The Court held that the defendant could use the act of God defense because the heavy rain was unforeseeable. Several witnesses testified that this was the worst storm that has ever occurred in this area. The Court noted that the defendant was not expected to guard against a storm that the defendant could not reasonably anticipate. Gulf, C. & S.F. Ry. Co. v. Texas Star Flour Mills, 143 S.W. 1179 (Tex. Civ. App. 1912).
Texas Cases where the Defendant could not use the Act of God Defense:
In Macedonia Baptist Church v. Gibson, a church ordered a steeple with a lightning rod and cable. A contractor installed the steeple, but church members instated the lightning rod and cable. Nora Gibson was exiting the church during a lightning storm and was injured by a side flash from the cable. The Texarkana Court of Appeals held that Gibson’s injuries were not the result of an act of God. The Court reasoned that Gibson’s injury was not the exclusive result of natural causes. There was human intervention because Gibson’s injury was caused by an improperly installed lightning protection system. (See Macedonia Baptist Church v. Gibson, 833 S.W.2d 557 (Tex. App. 1992), writ denied.
In Luther Transfer & Storage, Inc. v. W. H. Walton, Walton rented a storage space from Luther Transfer and Storage. One night a heavy storm caused 4.65 inches of rain. Water went down a ramp and into the storage space. The rain damaged the merchandise. Transfer & Storage claimed that the damage was a result of an act of God because the amount of rain was unprecedented. The Supreme Court of Texas rejected Luther Transfer’s act of God defense because the heavy rainfall was not the sole cause of the injury to the plaintiff. The heavy rainfall could not relieve Luther Transfer & Storage from liability because Luther Transfer & Storage was negligent in the way they designed the storage space. Luther Transfer & Storage, Inc. v. Walton, 156 Tex. 491 (Tex. 1956).
Other Cases involving the Act of God Defense:
- Utilities Pipeline Co. v. American Petrofina Marketing, 760 S.W.2d 719 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1988).
- San Antonio v. Potter, 31 Tex. Civ. App. 263 (Tex. Civ. App. 1903).