An Act of God: A general valid defences against a Tort Committed

Act of God may be defined as circumstances which no human foresight can provide against any 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 result from them. Act of God includes those consequences which are occasioned by elementary force of nature unconnected with the agency of man. Common examples of Act of God are the falling of a tree, a flash of lightening, a tornado or a flood.

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The essential conditions of this defence are :

(i) the event causing damages was the result of natural forces without any intervention from human agency, and

(ii) the event was such that the possibility of such an event could not be recognized by using reasonable care and foresight.

Whether a particular event amounts to an Act of God is question of fact. Today the scope of this defence is very limited because with the increase in knowledge the foresight also increases and it is expected that the possibility of the event could have been visualized.

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Whether a particular circumstance or occurrence amounts to an act of God is a question of fact in each case and the criterion for deciding it “is not human foresight and prudence could reasonably recognise the possibility of such an event.” There is a tendency on the part of courts to limit the application of the defence of act of God not because of the fact that its application in the cases of absolute liability is diminished but because advancement in the scientific knowledge which limits the unpredictable.

Nichols v. Marsh Land is the leading case on the point. In this case, an artificial lake was created on the plaintiff’s land due to storage of rain water coming from a natural stream. Once there was an extraordinary heavy rain, which could never have been reasonably anticipated, as result of which the embankments of the lakes burst out and water began to overflow on the plaintiff’s land. The flow of water carried away four bridges of the plaintiff. It was held that the defendant was not liable as the loss was caused by the act of God which could not be anticipated by the defendants.

But if rainfall is normal at a place ten defence of act of god cannot be taken for loss caused by rain. For example, take the case of Kalloo Lal v.Hemchandra. In that case due to heavy rainfall that the wall of defendant’s house collapsed, resulting in death of two of plaintiff’s sons. The plaintiff sued the defendants for damages. The defendant pleaded the defence of act of God. It was held that the defendant was liable because the people living there ought to have anticipated such a rainfall. The defencd of act of God is available in case of extraordinary rain which is not possible for man to anticipate. The defence of act of God is available in those cases which are the result of natural forces and does not occur due to interference of man.

In Greenock Corporation v. Caledonian Rly. the defendant, the municipal corporation in laying out a park constructed a concrete paddling pond for children in the bed of a stream and obstructed the natural flow of water therefrom. Owing to a rainfall of extraordinary violence the stream overflowed at the pond and as the result of the operations of the authority a great volume of water, which would have been carried of by the stream in its natural course without mischief, poured down a public street into the town and damaged the property of the plaintiff a railway company. It was held that the defendant, the municipal authority, was liable for the damage because it was not an act of God, but the consequence of human act. If by constructing a pound of the natural flow of stream water had not been obstructed the property of the plaintiff would not have been damaged. The defendants could have anticipated it. Inspite of this, they did so and hence liable for negligence. In Nichols v. Marshland the accident was the consequence of act of God or working of natural forces, while in Greenock Corporation the obstruction in the natural flow of stream water was the result of
human act.

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