Act of god

This refers to unforseeable and extreme weather conditions.

Acts of God are events outside of human control.  Examples include natural disasters such as floods, fires caused by lightning, violent storm at sea, extraordinary snowfall and earthquake.

An Act of God is a general defence in tort actions and may be used in claims under Rylands v Fletcher and nuisance. However the use of the defence has its difficulties and uncertainties.

The starting point is the definition of an Act of God which, by its nature, is an event which 'no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognise the possibility' (per Lord Westbury, Tennent v Earl of Glasgow (1864).

Perhaps some of the difficulties and uncertainties of the defence may be best illustrated by following a series of cases which all involve culverts.

In Nichols v Marsland (1876) exceptionally heavy rain was claimed to be responsible for artificial lakes, bridges and waterways to be flooded. The flooding caused damage to adjoining land but the defence of Act of God was accepted and the defendant was not liable. The escape of water from a reservoir was considered to be due to an act of God.

In Greenock Corporation v Caledonian Railway (1917) the council constructed a concrete paddling pool for children in the bed of a stream and by these operations obstructed the natural flow of the stream. Owing to a rainfall of extraordinary violence the stream overflowed at the pond and damaged the property of the plaintiffs. The reasoning in Nichols v Marsland was doubted by the House of Lords and the House held that the unusually heavy rainfall did not negate the council from responsibility. The Court held that the duty of anyone who interferes with the course of a stream is to ensure that any works which are substituted for the natural channel are adequate to carry off the water even if the water is the result of extraordinary rainfall. The House noted that in the case of Nichols v Marsland water had been held in a reservoir and there had been no question of a natural watercourse being interfered with and secondly the jury appeared to have found that there had been an Act of God.

Finally in Pemberton v Bright and others (1960) A culvert had been altered and extended in the 1920s and the entrance left uncovered and unprotected. A claim was brought in nuisance but a defence of Act of God failed on the basis that the interference with the flow of water created a potential nuisance. It was found that heavy rain was always a potential danger unless properly controlled. In this regard the court accepted that a grid, if it had been inserted, would have probably stopped debris getting past it and in so doing reduced the risk of flooding. Liability for the resulting flooding was established.

 

BLM - News - Rylands v Fletcher

 

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