Knocking Down Worshipper Not an “Act of God”

churchThe intersection of church and tort law is an interesting area. For the most part, courts–wisely so–have been reluctant to entangle tort law with church and religion except in cases of intentional physical batteries.  In Bass v. Aetna Ins. Co., the court had to decide whether “trotting under the Spirit of the Lord” in church, with the result of running into and injuring the plaintiff, was actionable or a protected “Act of God.”

Plaintiff attended the Shepard’s Fold Church in Louisiana, where moving or running in the aisles “in the Spirit” apparently is a common practice. During a revival, a fellow worshiper ran down the aisle where plaintiff was kneeling and praying and knocked her down, causing injury. Plaintiff sued for negligence.

At trial, the defendant testified he was “‘trotting’ under the Spirit of the Lord” and was not in control of his actions at the time of the collision. He raised “Act of God” as a defense and also asserted the plaintiff assumed the risk of the collision and was contributorily negligent. For non-legals, an Act of God under law is a harm-causing force of nature, such as a tornado or flood, the consequences of which humans generally are not held responsible for.

The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiff assumed the risk of the collision by praying in the aisle with her eyes closed, a decision affirmed by the court of appeals. But the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed.

The West headnote writers summed up the holdings succinctly:

[1] Negligence: Notwithstanding that worshiper testified he was trotting under the Spirit of the Lord, “Act of God” defense did not apply in action by worshiper who was injured while praying in the aisle against second worshiper who was running in church inasmuch as “Act of God” meant force majeure.

[14] Religious Societies: It is not contributory negligence to bow one’s head while praying in church, whether in the pew or in the aisle.

Bass v. Aetna Ins. Co., 370 So. 2d 511 (La. 1979). Thanks to a fellow Torts professor.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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