Dark Clouds Descending on the “Acts of God” Excuse

On the heels of the Ballpark lightning incident comes news from the Ottawa Citizen that Canadian investigators have sloughed off the stage collapse at last year’s Ottawa Bluesfest as an “Act of God”, claiming that “freak weather alone” caused it. [EDIT: The Ottawa Citizen link seems to be unstable--sometimes working, sometimes not. Here's an alternative link, though it is even less detailed.]

Bad decision. When it comes to large-venue weather disasters, in today’s era of storm tracking and warning, “acts of God” are failures of people. I’ve discussed this before.

I don’t know if Environment Canada had a warning out, or if the investigators bothered with the meteorological side of the investigation beyond talking to the unnamed meteorologist who gave them “average wind” climatology in advance. Clearly this was no “average wind”! Such preparations (while not a bad thing) are totally irrelevant to severe thunderstorms. Something is seriously wrong with emergency planning for a big event when the guy in charge of monitoring weather didn’t realize there were storms coming until “dark clouds were descending”.

There’s also a lot of information missing from that story, unfortunately. Reading it, I wondered: Was there a real-time meteorologist? What was the event’s access to live weather information? Was there a severe thunderstorm warning? [EC, after all, does issue those.] Did radar show an approaching storm? [I suspect it did, given that the Canadian radar network covers that area well with a unit at nearby Franktown.] What was the venue’s plan, if any, for sheltering and event stoppage in the event of an approaching storm? These are all valid questions that the reporter appears not to have asked. So much for investigative journalism, too…

That could be (and I hope is) about the last stand for the tired old “Act of God” sidestepping exercise. That line of thinking simply isn’t valid for a phenomenon that is predictable. That isn’t just me talking; as I am not a legal expert. Instead it comes from speaking with attorneys over the last 10 years, and even in published legal literature as far back as 1996 (i.e., this paper in The Review of Litigation1). The author concludes, “the Act of God defense is a theory which no longer makes legal or factual sense”–and that was 16 years ago.

Extreme weather only has gotten more predictable since. Yet somehow, the excuse worked in Ottawa. That is baffling and disappointing in this day and age–even if Canadian “act of God” law is substantially different. I’d love to hear from a Canadian legal expert on that.

1Binder, D., 1996: Act of God? or act of man?: A reappraisal of the act of God defense in tort law. Rev. Litigation, 15, 1-79.



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