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An Act of God

A tree growing in the woods is blown over by wind and lands on my truck. Without regard for why my truck happened to be in the woods in proximity to the tree, the property owner is not responsible for damage to my truck, because the act is unpredictable, and the law calls it an “act of God.” Another act of God with which we are familiar is my boat getting loose in the hurricane and crashing into my neighbor’s dock or house. That is also an act of God, about which typically there is no legal responsibility.

This article is about just what is an act of God, and to what extent is an act of God a legal defense for a property owner?

I am convinced that when a child laughs, that laugh is an act of God. And the more he or she laughs, the more God smiles. I feel the same way about the play of a great athlete, or the work of a talented musician.

There is a story told about a guy who bought a house out of foreclosure that had been vacant for years. The house and grounds were a mess because no one lived there and no one had spent time with the place until this man purchased it. He spent years to make the house and grounds a showplace for the neighborhood. It looked so good that the neighbors would slow down when they drove by the house just to see how much better it looked each day. One day his minister came to dinner, and said “this is wonderful! With God’s help, you’ve made this a beautiful place.” The man said, “yes, but you should have seen it when God worked the place by himself!”

To this owner at least, man also plays a role in the care and maintenance of real estate!

I have written in this space that an owner of property owns his land downward to the middle of the earth, and upwards into the sky. Both up and down have obvious exceptions, but generally, that’s the law. You know because you read it here if your neighbor’s tree limbs extend onto your property, you have the right to cut them.

More importantly, I repeat one other message: that the goodwill of your neighbor will add more to the value of your home than a great lawn. If you must choose, cultivate your neighbor, not your lawn. Don’t cut your neighbor’s tree limb just because you have a legal right to do it. Ask first. Then, if you must, you may cut. But what if the tree is a 60-foot, long needle pine that the pine bores killed years ago? The trunk now stands as a decaying eyesore just waiting to drop across neighboring properties. When the wind blows and that carcass falls over, can it truly be said that the falling tree should be considered only an act of nature, or like the owner of the foreclosed house, is man owed some credit for the tree falling?

Take another example. An investment company owns waterfront property. The company pays a half million dollars to build a bulkhead and pier to accommodate the new hotel it has plans to build. With a hurricane approaching, the owner of a luxury yacht moves his boat from his own dock, and anchors it 200 yards off the company’s new bulkhead. The hurricane blows the boat across the adjoining property, destroys the bulkhead and newly constructed boat dock, and the boat ends up sitting in a swimming pool. Is that an act of God out of which there is no liability? Does it matter that when the hurricane struck, the boat was properly anchored according to maritime rules? What if the property owner takes the understandable position that the boat owner could’ve left the boat moored outside his own house, but chose not to do that because the boat might get loose, and he didn’t want it to destroy his own home? Besides, he reasons, the boat is insured but his own boat house and entire backyard are generally not. Is his choice about where or how to moor his boat an act of God? Is it still an act of God if he negligently anchors it?

I build my driveway in a place where there are trees close to the road. I choose to have a natural front yard so I don’t clear the property. Someone leaving my driveway can’t see around a tree, they enter the road, and an “accident” happens. If a claim is made against me as the property owner, can I use an act of God defense because I didn’t plant the tree, God did it, and I didn’t drive the car, someone else did?

No one can answer except a judge or a jury just how much personal involvement removes an “accident” from God’s hands and rests the responsibility on a property owner. But, you should know that the law of Florida creates a test that assumes each one of us can be held accountable if we create a “reasonably foreseeable zone of risk” for others. That is to say, regardless of ownership rights and notwithstanding an intervening act of God, each of us has potential liability when we act, or fail to act, in a way that creates a risk for others.

Your lawyer should be consulted if you have a specific issue that you are concerned about. Generally, while your boat and your house may be insured, most policies don’t cover your own bulkhead or boathouse. The final thought this article can offer is that even those who champion individual property rights cannot legally disregard the protection and best interests of others.

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