DEFINITION of Vis Major
Vis major is a Latin term meaning "superior force," describing an irresistible natural occurrence that causes damage or disruption, and is neither caused by nor preventable by humans, even when exercising the utmost skill, care, diligence or prudence. Examples include hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. The terms "act of God" and "force majeure" are used in the same way as vis major. These terms are commonly used in contracts to exclude one or both parties from liability and/or fulfilling their contractual obligations when events beyond their control occur.
BREAKING DOWN Vis Major
Vis major or force majeure clauses are standard in many contracts, and exempt the contracting parties from fulfilling their contractual obligations for reasons that could not be anticipated or are beyond their control. In commercial contracts, vis major can also apply to actions undertaken by third parties that neither party to the contract can control, such as failure by a supplier or subcontractor to perform. The term can also apply to events such as war, riots or strikes. Whether or not events caused by humans (such as war or riots) are included in vis major may depend on the legal jurisdiction under which the contract is signed. Because there can be different interpretations across jurisdictions, it is often the case that contracts — especially at international level — will specifically define what is covered under a vis major clause.
Often, the parties will simply be suspended from performing their obligations during the course of the vis major, if it is an event that has a finite duration and that does not permanently affect the ability to deliver on the contract.
Events Vis Major Does Not Cover
Because vis major is intended to exclude unforeseen and unpreventable events, it does not cover negligence or malfeasance, and neither will it cover normal and expected natural events. (For example, a hurricane would fall under vis major, but normal seasonal rainfall would not.)
Insurance contracts often exclude coverage for damage caused by vis major, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. These events can sometimes be insured against with a rider or separate, specialized policy. A finding that an adverse event was caused by vis major can also exempt a defendant in a lawsuit from liability.