Act of God and Vis Major

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In March of 1997, 16 tornados tore through Arkansas, killing 26 people and destroying homes and businesses. At the time I was living in Hot Springs, cowering in the closet. The twister missed us, but thirty miles away, the college town of Arkadelphia was nearly wiped off the map.

That March the state legislature quickly drafted a bill intended to protect tornado victims from the possibility that insurance companies might deny their claims. It contained the following language:

No insurance policy or contract covering damages to property shall be canceled nor the renewal thereof denied solely as a result of claims arising from acts of God.”

Then governor Mike Huckabee refused to sign the bill because he objected to the phrase “act of God” to describe “a destructive and deadly force.” He preferred “natural disaster.” After about three weeks, the term “natural causes” was agreed upon and the governor signed the bill.

The term “act of God” to describe an event beyond human control has long been used by insurance underwriters. Here are some definitions listed at the Business Dictionary:

act of God: violent and catastrophic event caused by forces of nature, which could not have been prevented or avoided by foresight or prudence. An act of God that makes performance of a contractual duty impossible may excuse performance of that duty. —Dictionary of Business Terms

act of God: natural occurrence beyond human control or influence. Such acts of nature include hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. —Dictionary of Insurance Terms

act of God: an unpreventable destructive occurrence of the natural world. Example: A contract has a provision that allows the buyer to default if the property is damaged by an act of God. Examples of an act of God are: earthquake, flood, hurricane, lightning, tornado. —Dictionary of Real Estate Terms

An alternate term for “act of God” is the Latin term vis major, “an overpowering force”:

vis major [vĭs mā’jər]: such a degree of superior force that no effective resistance can be made to it. –OED

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6 thoughts on “Act of God and Vis Major”

  1. Depends what you mean by “same meaning.” Obviously “force majeure” and “vis major” have the same literal meaning, but the modern English meaning of those expressions is not the same. From wikipedia: “The expression is undoubtedly a term of wider import than vis major. Judges have agreed that strikes, breakdown of machinery, which though normally not included in vis major, are included in force majeure.”

  2. Wow, that’s some hard core hair splitting Peter. Loving your work.

    Acting like you know better and then citing wikipedia’s explanation of a narrow technical legal distinction. That takes some rocks!

    I guess it depends what you mean by “import” and “wider” and “modern” and “English” and “same”.

  3. Actually, I was going to say, a day or so earlier, that “force majeure” is the more common phrase — I’ve never heard it in Latin; but I wasn’t sure how to spell “majeure”, so I googled it, found the Wikipedia article, and decided not to mention it 🙂 [And “Narrow technical legal distinction” is all there is; it’s a narrow technical legal term]

  4. Well if Vis Major is a narrow technical distinction then try “Actus Dei Nemini Facit Injuriam”, in other words, no one is responsible for inevitable accidents.

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