“Acts of God”, also referred to as “force majeure,” as defined in the legal profession are events that essentially have no causation beyond what occurs in nature, such as a tree being hit by lightning and falling over. Since these events have no causation, it is not possible to hold anyone liable for their happening most of the time. However, it is still important to understand what one is and is not, because ruling an event to be an ‘act of God’ can make the difference between obtaining compensation and being out of luck.
Foreseeability and Unforeseeability
The primary place we see “acts of God” in tort law is when they are asserted as intervening causes meant to absolve a defendant of liability. If, for example, an auto accident occurs when a car hits another car after experiencing an earthquake, it might be asserted that the unforeseeability of an earthquake should mean the defendant is not liable – that the accident would not have happened but for the quake.
Sometimes, however, an act of God is foreseeable, and in those situations, the defendant remains liable – the act of God might be a cause, but it does not sufficiently break the causal chain to get the defendant off the proverbial hook. An example would be a lightning strike hitting a metal building or structure, injuring someone inside or nearby. It is reasonably foreseeable that lightning would hit metal, and as such, the owner or operator of the structure would still likely be liable.
The Extent of Harm
One important thing to remember, even with acts of God, is that while the harm done must be foreseeable in order to hold the defendant liable, the extent of the harm does not have to be foreseeable. The Restatement Third of Torts states explicitly that if the risk of harm is foreseeable, that is enough to hold the defendant liable for all that occurs. In some states, South Carolina included, this is referred to as the “eggshell plaintiff” rule.
The eggshell plaintiff rule is a common-law concept that states that a defendant must take their plaintiff as they find them; in other words, if more harm is done to a specific plaintiff than one might normally expect, the defendant is still liable for all of the harm done, not only the ‘foreseeable’ part. If, taking the previous example, one of those injured by the lightning strike on the metal building is a pregnant woman who then suffers a miscarriage, the owner or operator would still be liable for the physical and emotional damage suffered by the woman, even if they were unaware she was pregnant or that she was present in the structure.
Seek An Experienced Attorney
While sometimes, acts of God may bar you from recovery, there are some instances where they should have been foreseen. It can be difficult to tell the difference. The personal injury attorneys at Callihan & Syracuse are happy to answer any questions you may have about your case, and will work hard to get you the outcome you and your family need to get back on your feet. Contact our office today to set up a free consultation.