Act of God

What Is an Act of God?

An act of God describes an event outside of human control or activity, such as a natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake.

In business, the phrase “act of God” is not associated with any particular religion or belief system. Contractual language referring to acts of God are known as force majeure clauses, which are often used by insurance companies. These clauses typically limit or remove liability for injuries, damages, and losses caused by acts of God.

Key Takeaways

  • An act of God is an uncontrollable event, such as tornadoes, floods, or tsunamis, not caused nor controlled by humans.
  • Insurance companies often limit or exclude coverage for acts of God.
  • Acts of God do not absolve people from a duty to exercise reasonable care.
  • Policyholders should review their policy for coverages and exclusions pertaining to acts of God.
  • In the U.S., flood insurance is offered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Understanding Acts of God

Events, such as floods, earthquakes, or natural catastrophes, trigger acts of God. These are events considered uncontrollable by human intervention. If contracts have force majeure clauses—meaning "superior force"—parties may not be liable if the terms of the contract cannot be carried out.

It is important to carefully read how these clauses are written. Some clauses may specifically indicate events, such as a pandemic or flood, that fall under its guidelines. These clauses may also outline if they will offer a 50% or full refund, or any other form of restitution.

What is considered an act of God varies across the country. When a contract includes catchall clauses, this may assist in broadening the scope as to which events qualify as acts of God. These clauses may include, "any other event beyond the reasonable control of a party.”

Examples of Acts of God

Like many other sports and entertainment contracts, the NBA has an act of God clause. Specifically, the contract includes events like a pandemic. The contract states that a portion of players' salaries can be withheld for each canceled game caused by the event.

However, an act of God clause in a contract does not imply that no one is liable for damages.

A natural disaster, such as a flood or an earthquake, usually isn't foreseeable or preventable. Importantly, though, the insured cannot use the event as an excuse for not taking reasonable care to try to prevent or protect against damages.

Say a dilapidated warehouse collapses during an earthquake and injures bystanders. The owner claims an act of God caused the building to fall. However, the insurer will likely deny the claim, and there may be no recourse in court because the owner did not take reasonable care to maintain the structural integrity of the building.

Likewise, governments also need to take reasonable care to prevent disasters. Say a state failed to maintain a dam that bursts and caused major damage to a community. This is not an act of God. Intense rains may have caused bodies of water to swell, but the flooding was a direct result of the government's lack of action to maintain water retention systems.

A judge ruled the flooding in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina (an act of God) as an act of negligence because the U.S. Army Corps did not properly maintain flood defenses.

Special Considerations

Insurance policies often have long lists of exclusions for damages caused by acts of God.

Policyholders should thoroughly review their policies to see what types of damages caused by acts of God are covered. Then, they can make informed decisions as to whether to purchase additional insurance to protect themselves and their property from certain risks. 

For example, a typical homeowner’s insurance policy excludes most acts of God, especially hurricanes. For this reason, coastal homeowners typically purchase separate flood insurance to add additional protection. In the U.S., flood insurance is offered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Of note, some homeowner insurance policies cover damage to the home itself related to specific acts of God but not to other buildings or structures owned by the policyholder.

What Are Examples of Acts of God?

Common examples of acts of God include earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and storms.

What Is Another Term for Act of God?

Another term for "Act of God" is "Vis Major." In Latin, vis major describes a "superior force" that causes damage that isn't caused by nor preventable by humans.

What Kind of Insurance Policy Covers Acts of God?

Comprehensive auto coverage typically covers acts of God including hurricanes, lightning strikes, earthquakes, and more.

As for the home, many standard homeowners insurance cover natural disasters and weather events such as wind, hail, and wildfires. However, damage caused by floods and earthquakes typically isn't covered under standard homeowners policies. For that, homeowners need to purchase separate flood and earthquake coverage.

What Is an Insurance Definition of an Act of God?

In the world of insurance, the definition of an act of God is essentially the same as the standard definition: an act of nature that couldn't have been predicted, prevented, and which no human is to blame.

What Does Act of God Mean to Business Property Insurance?

It's important to know the details of your business property insurance policy. Sometimes specific acts of God are excluded from coverage. For example, you might need to purchase separate coverage for weather-related events like floods, hail, or earthquakes.

What Is the Difference Between Force Majeure and Act of God?

Generally speaking, an act of God includes acts of nature only. Force majeure, meanwhile, includes both acts of nature and extraordinary circumstances due to human intervention. Examples of force majeure include an outbreak of a contagious disease, government lockdowns, or war.

Article Sources

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  1. NPBA. "Collective Bargaining Agreement." Accessed Sept. 21, 2021.

  2. The Los Angeles Times. "Judge says U.S. Liable in Katrina." Accessed Sept. 21, 2021.

  3. The Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Flood Insurance." Accessed Sept. 21, 2021.