Following the disaster that has unfolded in Texas as a result of the unprecedented flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, affected businesses might be asking whether they might be able to avail themselves of the “Act of God” defense that is embodied in several federal environmental laws and the Texas Health and Safety Code. If ever an event qualified as an “Act of God,” many would likely agree that Hurricane Harvey falls into that category. However, if the experience of Hurricane Katrina provides any guidance, regulated entities are likely to face substantial hurdles triggering the “Act of God” defense for releases attributable to Hurricane Harvey.
Although not defined in the Texas Health and Safety Code, CERCLA defines an “Act of God” as the “unanticipated grave natural disaster or other natural phenomenon of an exceptional, inevitable, and irresistible character, the effects of which could not have been prevented, or avoided by the exercise of due care or foresight.” 42 U.S.C. §9601(1). The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 contains a verbatim definition of “Act of God.” 33 U.S.C. §2701(1).
One might ask how many times the “Act of God” defense has been successfully asserted, and the answer is that there is not a single reported case where that defense has been successful.
That is not to say that affected entities should not give due consideration to all potentially applicable defenses in the face of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey. However, one should not turn a blind eye to the fact that reliance on an “Act of God” defense is likely to continue to face hurdles of biblical proportion.