In a personal injury case arising out of a teen driver hitting a pedestrian and his dog, the trial court properly granted the pedestrian’s motion for summary judgment on the driver’s act of God defense based on the bright sunlight. There was no evidence that bright sunlight while driving was an unexpected natural occurrence or that she had no reasonable warning that it might obscure her vision.
On the afternoon of February 4, 2016, a 16-year-old girl drove from her high school to Costco. The plaintiff was walking his dog on the sidewalk near the store. As the defendant made a right turn into the Costco parking lot, she struck the plaintiff and his dog as they were walking across the parking lot entrance. The plaintiff needed to have surgery to repair his knee and was unable to work after the accident. His dog also sustained injuries.
In her deposition, the defendant testified there were trees on both sides of the street leading up to the entrance of the Costco parking lot that obscured her view as she was driving. She also said that when she made the right turn into the parking lot, the sun temporarily blinded her from seeing the plaintiff and his dog in the crosswalk. But she acknowledged that she’d been to the same Costco approximately 15 times before the accident, had used the same entrance on those prior occasions, and had previously driven to Costco “on sunny days.”
In addition, the defendant testified that before the accident, she’d been driving for about 25 minutes, and the sun had been bothering her during the trip. She admitted that she owned three pairs of sunglasses and had used them in the past when driving during sunny weather conditions, but she didn’t have them with her that day. The defendant also testified that she’d failed to use her sun visor during the trip, which would’ve helped block the sun.
Act of God as an Affirmative Defense
The defendant asserted as an affirmative defense that the accident was the result of an act of God. The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on this, and the trial court granted summary judgment to the plaintiff on the defendant’s act of God defense. The trial judge concluded that the bright sunlight encountered by the defendant when turning into the parking lot wasn’t an unpredictable natural catastrophe.
Presiding Judge Anne Barnes wrote that a plaintiff who moves for summary judgment on an affirmative defense has the burden of piercing that defense. If the plaintiff meets that burden, the burden then shifts to the defendant to point to evidence showing a genuine issue of material fact for trial. A claim that an automobile accident was caused by an act of God rather than the fault of the defendant is an affirmative defense.
What is an Act of God Defense?
By definition, the legislature constricted an “act of God” to mean “an accident produced by physical causes which are irresistible or inevitable, such as lightning, storms, perils of the sea, earthquakes, inundations, sudden death or illness. This expression excludes all idea of human agency,” the judge said, quoting Georgia Statute § 1-3-3 (3). Plainly, the statutory definition incorporates three basic elements: (1) an accident produced by (2) an irresistible or inevitable force of nature or God, (3) which excludes all idea of human agency or conduct.
In other words, an “act of God,” not an act of man, must solely cause the accident.
“The term ‘act of God’ in its legal sense applies only to events in nature so extraordinary that the history of climatic variations and other conditions in the particular locality affords no reasonable warning of them.” Citing a 1999 case, Judge Barnes explained that an act of God refers to an occurrence that’s “totally unexpected in the natural world,” such as a lightning strike in a location where a strike normally does not occur, an earthquake, a meteor, or a tidal wave.
Here, the plaintiff shattered the defendant’s act of God defense by pointing to evidence that the car accident was caused all or in part by the fault of the defendant rather than a force of nature, given that the defendant testified that she failed to wear her sunglasses or put down the sun visor on her car despite the sunny weather conditions. The burden then shifted to the defendant to point to evidence showing a genuine issue of material fact with respect to her defense, but she failed to point to any evidence that the sunlight she encountered was so extraordinary and unexpected as to render the accident that occurred inevitable.
Judge Barnes emphasized that the defendant acknowledged in her deposition that while sunlight obscured her vision when she turned into the Costco parking lot, she’d previously driven the same route on multiple occasions under sunny weather conditions. She also admitted that she’d been driving for about 25 minutes before the accident, that it had been “sunny the entire drive,” and that the sun had been bothering her prior to the accident. In light of her testimony, the defendant failed to point to any evidence that encountering bright sunlight while driving was an unexpected natural occurrence or that she had no reasonable warning that it might obscure her vision. In addition, the defendant also testified that the trees lining the road leading to the parking lot entrance obscured her vision, but, that she’d driven that same route many times. As with the sunlight, the trees lining the roadway were not an unexpected natural occurrence.
The judgment on the act of God affirmative defense was affirmed. Head v. de Souse, 353 Ga. App. 309, 836 S.E.2d 227 (Ga. App. November 18, 2019).
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