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Erupting over an 'act of God'

April 20, 2010 |  7:36 pm


Henry Chu began his Friday article about the Icelandic volcano’s effects on travelers’ plans with these words:

To the thousands of glum and despairing passengers marooned across Europe on Friday by an unforeseen act of God, it may have seemed like a page from "Paradise Lost."

The phrase “act of God” caught the attention of reader Chet McGaugh of Riverside, who thought that Chu’s personal beliefs were slipping into his writing. McGaugh wrote:

If news stories and world events are to be described as "unforeseen acts of God"  or as "Mother Nature offering a reminder of who's really still in charge," may I suggest that opinions be expressed on the traditional page, and fact and fact-checking keep the rest of the paper reality-based. The reality of volcanoes is infinitely more interesting than this primitive dismissal.

However, rather than an expression of opinion, “act of God” is primarily a legal term. According to West's Encyclopedia of American Law, it’s “an event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident.”

The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano would certainly apply.

The encyclopedia goes on to explain: “Courts have recognized various events as acts of God — tornadoes, earthquakes, death, extraordinarily high tides, violent winds, and floods. Many insurance policies for property damage exclude from their protection damage caused by acts of God.”

And Deputy Foreign Editor Mark Porubcansky said use of the phrase was simply poetic license.

“In a story that’s primarily a human tale, I don’t think it’s outside the bounds, and I think it makes the writing more lively and interesting,” he said. “I suspect most readers would intuitively grasp that these are literary devices rather than an effort to persuade them of the existence of God or the fickleness of Mother Nature.”  

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: A plume of ash rises from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Credit: Arnar Thorisson /