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What Does "Vis Major" Mean?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker

Many words still used within the law are of Latin origin, including the phrase "vis major." The phrase "vis major," literally translated, means "superior force." A more modern-day English translation of the phrase "vis major" is "act of God." The term is generally used to refer to a force so superior that no amount of preparation or precaution could have prevented it from occurring.

The roots of many legal systems throughout Europe and the Americas can be traced back to the Romans. As a result, many legal terms and concepts were originally Latin terms or phrases. Over the centuries, a number of those terms and phrases have remained in Latin as both an homage to the ancient Roman legal system from which they sprang, and as a universal way to refer to concepts that are similar among modern-day legal systems. In many modern-day legal systems, the phrase "vis major" is used in contract or tort law as an exception to strict liability or as a way for a defendant to avoid liability.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

In tort, or injury, law, some torts are considered to be strict liability torts. In a strict liability tort, the plaintiff does not have to show a mens rea, or "state of mind," such as negligence in order for the defendant to be liable. All the plaintiff must show is that the defendant's action, or inaction, caused the plaintiff's injuries in order for the plaintiff to recover compensation. Many product liability claims are strict liability tort, as are certain accident torts, such as a dog bite by a dog breed known to be aggressive.

Many courts have taken the position that, even in a strict liability tort, the defendant can avoid liability when a vis major intervened. In other words, when an act of God was to blame for the accident, the defendant may not be held responsible. Take, for example, an aggressive dog whose owner would generally be responsible for any injuries caused by the dog despite efforts to contain the animal. If the owner had the dog secured in a concrete building with steel doors, making it virtually impossible for the dog to get out, but a hurricane wiped the building out and the dog survived, only to bite someone, a court might not hold the defendant liable!

Contracts are another area of the law where the concept of vis major plays a role. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties. When one party fails to perform according to the terms of the contract, the other party may generally recover monetary damages for the breach. Many contracts, however, have a provision in them that excludes a party from liability when an act of God prevents the party from performing according to the terms of the contract.

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