Act of God and Vis Major
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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