This article is written by Aditya Dubey, student of Indore Institute of Law, Indore(M.P.). The author in this article has discussed the concepts of Inevitable accident and Act of God as defences in the Law of Torts along with their modern view.

Introduction

The law of torts has been evolving throughout its existence. There are certain principles which are used to counter claims for compensation. These counterclaims or defences are used to evict those citizens from tortious liability who have been unfairly been implicated with wrong claims imposed on them. These defences have been formulated from time to time to keep up with the basis of imposition of tortious liability on a person. There are many defences to a tort, such as necessity, Inevitable accident, Plaintiff’s wrongdoing, Volenti non fit injuria, etc.

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Meaning and Definitions

An inevitable accident is one which could not be possibly prevented by the exercise of ordinary care, caution and skill and hence it does not apply to anything which either of the parties might have avoided.

An Act of God is defined as a direct, sudden, insanely violent, natural, and irresistible act of nature, one which could not by any amount of care would have been foreseen, or if it has been foreseen, could not be avoided by any amount of care by any individual.

Sir Frederick Pollock defined an inevitable accident as an accident which is not avoidable by any precautions, a reasonable man could have expected to take.

It doesn’t necessarily mean to be a catastrophe which could not have been avoided by any precautious means by any reasonable man at the moment which it occurred, hence an accident is one which arises out of the normal course of things, something so unusual as not to be looked by a person of reasonable prudence. Hence inevitable accidents can be divided into two categories, those which are the byproduct of the elementary forces of nature unconnected with the agency of mankind or those acts which have their origin in the agency of man.

Conceptual meaning of these defences

The concept of Inevitable accident

In the past cases, the defence of inevitable accident used to be very relevant in actions for trespass when the older rule was that even an innocent trespass was actionable unless the defendant could prove that the accident was caused due to it being inevitable in nature.

It was thought for a long time that the burden of proof in trespass was on the defendant and that, trespass offered some scope to the concept of inevitable accidents but today it has been held that in case of trespass as well the burden is with the claimant himself. Therefore, in the cases of Trespass as well as Negligence, the concept of inevitable accidents has no place, in such cases, inevitable accident is of no relevance because the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove the defendant’s negligence but it does not follow that it is any more relevant if the plaintiff has no burden.

Case Law: Weaver v. Ward 80 Eng Rep 284 (K.B. 1616).

In this case, the Court gave the first explicit statement that a defendant can escape tortious liability in trespass if the trespass occurred by an accident which was inevitable in nature. Due to this, the category of an “inevitable accident” was well understood, in its foundation as a distinguished defence from that of an “accident” or a “mischance”, whose availability was in the cases of a felony but not in the cases of a trespass, which was a real no-negligence defence. In this case, the defendant Weaver shot the plaintiff when his musket discharged while their team of soldiers was skirmishing with another team, the defendant pleaded that he had accidentally and by misfortune and against his will, injured and deeply wounded the plaintiff, which resulted in the same tort of trespass of which the plaintiff complained. This was actually a plea of an accident. The plaintiff objected and the court held the defendant’s plea bad. In the case of trespass, the plaintiff needed to allege only the fact that the defendant had done harm with the force and arms, rather than the harm is done negligently.

The Doctrine of Strict liability

  • This doctrine has been widely extended to such activities which are considered abnormally dangerous or hazardous. Such activities necessarily involve a risk of serious harm to other people, which cannot be eliminated by the exercise of reasonable care and are not in the scope of common usage.
  • Strict liability does not depend upon such factors, such as reckless, intent to do the act, knowledge of the action, etc. Liability, in this case, is simply based upon the risk involved with respect to the actions. The judgement in the case of Ryland v. Fletcher UKHL 1 (1868) LR 3 HL 330 recognized that liability was not absolute and is subject to certain exceptions that were established later on.
  • It was established that the defendant can excuse himself by showing that the escape of the dangerous thing was due to the plaintiff’s fault or the escape was due to the consequences of vis major, or an act of God. Hence it was made as a part of the rule.
  • Further, an inevitable accident in any form is not a defence to any claim which is based on the rule of absolute liability (a modified version of the doctrine of strict liability to match the current era) as laid down in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India and it is not subjected to any exceptions of the rule of strict liability.
  • Illustration: If a dog has caused some kind of harm and the aggrieved individual seeks to sue the keeper of that dog for the compensation of the harm, it would seem that the fact that the dog acted in the way it did because of the actions of another individual or an act of god will afford no defence to the claim made by the plaintiff. The potential liability of the keeper of a dangerous animal is much wider than that of the potential of a keeper of an inanimate object. Inevitable accident in no form is a defence in the case of strict liability.

The concept of Force major/ Vis major/ Act of God

  • An act of God is defined as a direct, sudden, insanely violent, natural, and irresistible act of nature, one which could not by any amount of care have been foreseen, or if it has been foreseen, could not be avoided by any amount of care by any individual.
  • An act of God is one which has been there ever since the existence of our planet Earth, we have been witnessing natural calamities since the existence of mankind, these include, Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, etc. In such occurrences, lives are lost, properties are destroyed or significantly damaged when the forces of the nature strike harshly and suddenly.
  • Nature’s blows are severely dangerous and may come as a huge shock or surprise both to the victims of the disaster and even the accused individuals or tortfeasors.
  • In many cases, the defendants are quick to claim the defence of an act of God as a defence to those cases. To afford the defence of vis major, there must be an immediate or proximate cause (Causa causans) and not just a cause had it not existed might never have led to the damage caused or complained of (causa sine quo non).
  • Before an act of God may be granted as a defence the defendant has to prove himself to have done everything that a reasonable and a prudent person could do in such a scenario.

Act of God and Negligence

  • An act of God is an accident caused by the working of extraordinary natural forces whereas the effect of ordinary natural causes, such as a  water leak through the roof or ceiling may be foreseen and may also be avoided by taking certain reasonable actions, failure of these actions i.e. the precautions that are necessary contribute to negligence.
  • Negligence is basically the breach of an obligation or a duty or a responsibility to act with care towards something, or, it is the failure to act as a reasonable and a prudent person would act under the same or similar circumstances.
  • Both of these defences are based on the reasonable foreseeability, here the question is not whether a similar event has occurred before or not, but whether the risk that this mishap may occur is foreseeable or not.
  • In order for a plaintiff to recover damages, the failure of foreseeability must be the proximate cause of an injury and an actual loss must occur.
  • If the act of God is so overwhelming that its own force produces injury independent of the defendant’s negligence, then the defendant will not be held liable.
  • Where both negligence and the act of God have a role to play, the traditional sine qua non, substantial factor or legal causation tests apply.
  • If the damages suffered are incurred solely due to natural causes without any known fault, there is no liability because of the act of God.
  • There are two ways of viewing this situation:
    • The act of God either supersedes the defendant’s negligence, or the defendant’s negligent act did not cause the injury.
    • The defendant’s actions did not cause the damage since the injury would have occurred anyway in both cases. An act of God is so extraordinary that reasonable care would not avoid the consequences that it produces, hence, the injured party has no right to the damages which they might receive. Accidents caused by tornadoes, floods, and severe ice storms are usually considered acts of God, but fires are not considered unless they are caused by lightning.
  • Both of these defences are very similar in their nature and in fact by the definition of vis major, it is considered to be a type of an inevitable accident but, a careful study of these two concepts will definitely differentiate the two as both of these are very distinct forms of escaping liability in the law of Tort. In practice, they are referred to as two distinct defences instead of being a subset of one another.
  • The term “inevitable accident”  is used in instances where the accidents occur by chance and in the absence of human error. Both of these are similar in terms of negligence, if it is proved by the plaintiff that there was negligence on the part of the defendant then the defendant will not be able to escape liability by using these defences.
  • An act of God has a much wider domain as it is a principle which makes God the defendant and hence it declares the accident to be truly out of the human control and reasonableness.
  • The plea of an inevitable accident has lost its practicality in today’s day and age, as it has lost its utility since the principle of absolute liability, applies even in the absence of  defendant’s negligence and with the growth in the dimension of science the number of accidents which were considered to be inevitable is fastly diminishing.
  • However, in cases which involves the forces of nature and lack predictability and control on the part of the defendant, such as an act of God, as mankind not only lacked the ability to predict the actions of nature but also there was little to no possibility of guarding oneself or controlling the actions of the nature.
  • But today, science has significantly advanced so much that it has come to a point where mankind may be able to understand the forces of nature. Because of this, natural hazards are not a mystery to mankind anymore and the applicability of these defences has significantly been reduced due to the evolution of the test of foreseeability in today’s day and age.

Case Law: Shridhar Tiwari V. UP State Road Transport Corporation(SRTC)

In this case, A bus of UP SRTC was travelling through a village where a cyclist had suddenly out of nowhere come in front of the Bus and in order to save that cyclist the driver applied the brakes as a result of which the Bus skidded on the road as the surface of the road was wet at that time and its rear portion struck against the front portion of Bus No. USA 8037. Here the defendant was not held liable at it was a sheer case of an inevitable accident.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, an inevitable accident is an event which happens not only without the concurrence of the will of a man but in spite of all the efforts that a man may put on his part to prevent it from happening i.e. an accident which is physically unavoidable and can’t be prevented by human skill or foresight. Whereas an act of God is an accident which is caused by the operations of the extraordinary natural forces and its effects include total destruction or loss at a very high scale as these are unpredictable and cannot be controlled. But with the development of science, it might become possible one day to predict an act which may be caused due to the actions of natural forces and perhaps, and even controlling such natural forces up to a certain extent.

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