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Woman trying to collect after insurer labels traffic accident 'act of God'

Tracy O'Dell might as well have been struck by lightning or swept away in a flash flood.

The Glen Ellen woman was sitting at a stoplight in front of Santa Rosa Plaza in 2011 when she was rear-ended by a man in a PT Cruiser going about 40 mph.

Her 2004 Honda Accord was smashed beyond repair and she was hospitalized with four bulging disks that left her in almost constant pain.

When she turned to the driver for compensation for $33,000 in medical and car expenses, she was told he wasn't responsible for the crash because he was having a heart attack at the time.

His insurance company viewed it as an "act of God," she said, because it was caused by an unexpected medical condition.

"It's just so unfair to me," said O'Dell, 49. "Why should I suffer because he had a heart attack?"

Fair or not, act-of-God claims have been upheld in California courts — and they don't require a freak weather event, rising waters or an earthquake.

If an insurance company can prove a policy holder's actions were caused by a medical condition that came on without warning they could escape liability, said William Robertson, dean of Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa.

Of course, that means the person can have no pre-existing health problems or record of treatment for ailments that would put them at a reasonable risk of collapse, Robertson said.

Then it is possible to trigger insurance policy language that nullifies coverage, Robertson said.

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