Act of God (vis major) : General Defences in Tort

According to Pollock act of God is an “operation of natural forces so unexpected that no human foresight or skill could reasonably be expected to anticipate it”. According to Halsbury’s Law of England, “an act of God in the legal sense may be defined as an extraordinary occurrence of circumstance which could not have been foreseen and which could not have been guarded against, or, more accurately, as an accident due to natural causes, directly and exclusively without human intervention and which could not have been avoided by any amount of foresight and pains and care reasonably to be expected of the person sought to be made liable for it, or who seeks to excuse himself on the ground of it. The occurrence need not be unique, nor need it be one that happens for the first time; it is enough that it is extraordinary, and such as could not reasonably be anticipated……and it must not arise from the act of man”.

In Manindra Nath Mukherjee v. Mathuradas Chaturbhuj, AIR 1946 Cal 175, a banner containing an advertisement fell down from the defendant’s premises thereby injuring the plaintiff because of a storm in Calcutta. It was contended by the defendant that the fall of the banner was caused by storm of unusual severity. It was, however, found that such storms of considerable severity were quite common in Calcutta during the monsoon season. The Calcutta High Court held that such a storm cannot be said to be so unexpected that no human foresight could reasonably be expected to anticipate it and cannot be regarded as vis major or Act of God. So, the defendant was held liable for negligence for failing to take proper care to secure the banner.

In Ramalinga Nadar v. Narayana Reddiar, AIR 1971 Ker 197, an unruly and violent mob robbed the good of the plaintiff which were being transported in the defendant’s lorry. The court held the defendant liable for the loss of goods as a common carrier. The court held that accidents may happen by reason of the play of natural forces or by intervention of human agency or by both. In either of these cases, the accident may be inevitable. But it is only those acts which can be traced to natural forces and which have nothing to do with the intervention of human agency that could be said to be acts of God.

Thus, to plead the defence of act of God the following two conditions must be established:

  1. There must be working of natural forces (like exceptionally heavy rainfall, storms, tempests, earthquakes, tides and volcanic eruptions) without any human intervention.
  2. The occurrence must be extraordinary and not one which could be anticipated and reasonably guarded against.

Act of God is a kind of inevitable accident with the difference that it does not incorporates any human intervention. Accidents may happen by reason of the play of natural forces or by intervention of human agency or by both, but it is only those acts which can be traced to natural forces and which have nothing to do with the intervention of human agency that could be said to be acts of God. The rule of strict liability (rule in Rylands v Fletcher) also recognizes act of God to be a valid defence for the purpose of liability under that rule.

A road accident resulting due to heavy fog is not covered under the act of God. Fog is not such a natural phenomenon that no human foresight could guard against it.

 

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