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Aetna Fire Insurance Company v. Boon/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

95 U.S. 117

Aetna Fire Insurance Company  v.  Boon

Preliminary to any consideration of the assignments of error is the question whether the bill of exceptions and the special finding of facts can be considered as a part of the record. The issues formed by the pleadings were tried by the court, without the intervention of a jury, in September, 1873, and judgment for the plaintiffs was ordered at April Term, 1874. It does not appear that any exceptions were taken to the rulings of the court during the progress of the trial, and that which is now claimed to be a bill of exceptions has no reference to any such rulings. It relates only to the judgment given on the findings of the issues of fact. The act of Congress which authorizes trials by the court, 13 Stat. 500, sects. 649, 700, Rev. Stats., has enacted that the finding of the court upon the facts, which may be either general or special, shall have the same effect as the verdict of a jury; and that, when the finding is special, the review by the Supreme Court upon a writ of error may extend to the determination of the sufficiency of the facts found to support the judgment. No bill of exceptions is required, or is necessary, to bring upon the record the findings, whether general or special. They belong to the record as fully as do the verdicts of a jury. If the finding be special, it takes the place of a special verdict; and, when judgment is entered upon it, no bill of exceptions is needed to bring the sufficiency of the finding up for review. But there must be a finding of facts, either general or special, in order to authorize a judgment; and that finding must appear on the record. In this case, there was no formal finding of facts when the judgment was ordered. It is to be inferred, it is true, from the judgment and from the entry of the clerk, that the issue made by the pleadings was found for the plaintiffs, but how, whether generally or specially, does not appear. There was, therefore, a defect in the record, which it was quite competent for the court to supply by amendment; and such an amendment was made. After the close of the April Term, and in the vacation next following, the judge of the court, on application of the defendants, granted an order upon the plaintiffs to show cause why the defendants should not have leave inter alia to make and serve a case or bill of exceptions, containing the evidence given at the trial, special findings of fact and law, and such exceptions thereto as the defendants might desire to make, and why such case or bill of exceptions when made and settled should not be filed, nunc pro tunc, as of the term when the judgment was entered. Upon this rule both parties were heard; and the result was an order that 'a finding of facts in the cause, with the conclusions of the court thereupon, conformably to the opinion of the court theretofore filed,' be prepared, to be approved by the court at the next following term (September); that the defendants have leave to prepare a bill of exceptions to be allowed and signed at said term, and that 'said special finding of facts' and bill of exceptions should be made, allowed, and entered of record, nunc pro tunc, as of the pril Term, 1874, of the court. Such a special finding was accordingly prepared, and at the September Term signed by both the judges of the Circuit Court, the order made in vacation was made the order of the court, and the separate findings of fact and conclusions of law, together with the bill of exceptions, also signed, were ordered to be filed, nunc pro tunc, as of April Term, 1874, and made part of the record of the cause. Had the court power to make such an order respecting a special finding, and, if it had, does the order have the effect of making the special finding a part of the record? It is not necessary to inquire whether the court, at a term subsequent to the judgment, could lawfully allow and sign a bill of exceptions not noted at the trial. It may be admitted that a court has no such power; but, as already remarked, no bill of exceptions was needed to bring any thing upon the record. If the special finding of facts was properly there, or was rightfully supplied, the judgment of the court is subject to review independently of any bill of exceptions, the only office of which is to bring upon the record rulings that without it would not appear. It remains, therefore, to consider whether the court could at the September Term, by an order, correct the record by incorporating into it, nunc pro tunc, a special finding of the facts upon which the judgment had been rendered. It is familiar doctrine that courts always have jurisdiction over their records to make them conform to what was actually done at the time; and, whatever may have been the rule announced in some of the old cases, the modern doctrine is that some orders and amendments may be made at a subsequent term, and directed to be entered and become of record as of a former term. In Rhoads v. The Commonwealth, 35 Penn. St. 276, Gibson, C. J., said: 'The old notion that the record remains in the breast of the court only till the end of the term has yielded to necessity, convenience, and common sense. Countless instances of amendment after the term, but ostensibly made during it, are to be found in our own books and those of our neighbors.' Even judgments may be corrected in accordance with the truth. It has been held by this court that, at a subsequent term, when a judgment had before been arrested, an amendment may be made to apply the verdict to a good count, if another be bad, and the minutes of the judge show that the evidence sustained the good one. Matheson's Adm'r v. Grant's Adm'r, 2 How. 282. And this has been repeatedly held elsewhere. Generally, it may be admitted that judgments cannot be amended after the term at which they were rendered, except as to defects or matters of form; but every court of record has power to amend its records, so as to make them conform to and exhibit the truth. Ordinarily, there must be something to amend by; but that may be the judge's minutes or notes, not themselves records, or any thing that satisfactorily shows what the truth was. Within these rules, we think, was the order made at September Term, that the special finding of facts and conclusions of law be signed by the judges and allowed, conformably to the opinion of the court theretofore filed, and that it, together with the order, should be filed nunc pro tunc as of April Term, and made part of the record. It was but an amendment or correction of form, the form of the finding, not of its substance, and there was enough to amend by. The opinion, which was filed concurrently with the entry of the judgment, contained substantially, almost literally, the same statement of facts, and relied upon it as the foundation of the judgment given. True, that opinion is no part of the record, any more than are a judge's minutes; but it was a guide to the amendment made, and it seems altogether probable it was intended to be itself a special finding of the facts. The order of September, 1874, recites that the court had at April Term filed, announced, and declared their findings of facts, with their conclusions of law thereupon, which indings and conclusions were embodied in the opinion of the court announced and filed in the cause. And all that was wanting to make it a sufficient special finding was that it was not entitled 'finding of facts.' The amendment or correction, therefore, contradicts nothing in the record as made at April Term, and it is in strict accordance with the truth. We conclude, then, that the order of September Term was within the discretion of the court, and that by it the special finding returned became a part of the record of the cause, and that the judgment founded upon it is subject to review in this court without any bill of exceptions.

In so holding, we do not depart from any thing we have ever decided respecting the power of a court to make up a case, after the expiration of a term, for bills of exceptions not claimed at the trial. This is not a case of that kind. It is the case of a correction of the record, not merely an allowance of exceptions never taken, and necessary to have been taken, to bring an interlocutory ruling upon it. We hold now, as we have always holden, that when bills of exceptions are necessary to bring any matter upon record so that it can be reviewed in error, it must appear by the record that the exception was taken at the trial. A judge cannot afterwards allow one not taken in time. Could he allow it, the record would be made to speak falsely.

Coming, then, to the merits of the case, the main question is, whether the fire which destroyed the plaintiff's property 'happened or took place by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power.' If it did, the loss was excepted from the risk taken by the insurers.

The policy contains this express stipulation: 'Provided always, and it is hereby declared, that the company shall not be liable to make good any loss or damage by fire which may happen or take place by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power, or any loss by theft at or after a fire.' The general purpose of this proviso is clear enough, but there is controversy respecting the extent of the exemption made by it. It has been very strenuously argued that the words 'military or usurped power' must be construed as meaning military and usurped power; that they do not refer to military power of the government, lawfully exercised, but to usurped military power, either that exerted by an invading foreign enemy, or by an internal armed force in rebellion, sufficient to supplant the laws of the land and displace the constituted authorities. There is, it must be admitted, considerable authority, and no less reason, in support of this interpretation. In our view of the present case, however, we are not called upon to affirm positively that such is the true meaning of the words in the connection in which they were used in the policy now under review; for, if it be conceded that it is, we are still of opinion that the fire which destroyed the premises of the plaintiffs below 'happened,' 'took place,' or occurred by means of a risk excepted in the policy. In other words, it was caused by invasion, and the usurped military power of a rebellion against the government of the United States, as the contracting parties understood the terms 'invasion' and 'military or usurped power.'

Policies of insurance, like other contracts, must receive a reasonable interpretation consonant with the apparent object and plain intent of the parties. This is entirely consistent with the rule that ambiguities should be construed most strongly against the underwriters, and most favorably to the assured. Manhattan Insurance Co. v. Stein, 5 Bush (Ky.), 652. It was well said recently by the New York Court of Appeals, that, in construing contracts, words must have the sense in which the parties understood them. And, to understand them as the parties understood them, the nature of the contract, the objects to be attained, and all the circumstances must be considered. Cushman . United States Life Insurance Co., 6 Law Jour., p. 601.

Apply, now, these principles to the present case. The policy was issued in 1864, while the country was convulsed by a civil war. The property insured was in a State bordering upon sections, the people of which were in insurrection against the general government, and confederated as a usurping power. The State had been the theatre of civil commotion and of armed invasion during the struggle between the confederated States and the Federal government, a struggle not then ended. It was quite possible that new invasions might be made and new destruction of property might be caused by the military or usurped power then in rebellion. It is evident that the insurers were willing to assume only ordinary risks, and that, to guard against more extended liability, the excepting clause was introduced into the policy. The provision must have been intended to be a protection to the company against extraordinary risks, attendant upon the condition of things then existing. Invasion involved, of necessity, resistance by the constituted authorities of the government, and the employment of its military force. Destruction of property by fire was quite as likely to be caused by resistance to the usurping military power as by the direct action of that power itself. This must have been foreseen and considered when the insurance was effected. It is difficult, therefore, to believe that the parties intended to confine the stipulated exemption within the limits to which the assured would not confine it. That the destruction of the plaintiff's property by fire was a consequence of the attack of the organized rebel military forces upon the forces of the United States holding possession of Glasgow, the special finding of facts clearly shows. Glasgow was a military post, and a place of deposit for the military stores of the United States, which were in the city hall. The city was guarded and defended by a military force under the command of Colonel Harding.

At an early hour of the morning of the fifteenth day of October, 1864, an armed force of the rebels, under military organization, surrounded and attacked the city and threw shot and shell into it, penetrating some buildings, and one thereof penetrating the store of the plaintiffs, but without setting fire thereto or causing any fire therein, and some of the shell killing soldiers and citizens. The city was defended by Colonel Harding and the military forces under his command, and a battle between the loyal troops and the rebel forces continued for many hours. The citizens fled to places of security, and no civil government prevailed in the city. The rebel forces were superior in number, and drove the forces of the government from their position, compelled their surrender, and entered and occupied the city.

During the battle, and when the government troops had been driven from their exterior lines of defence, it became apparent to Colonel Harding that the city could not be successfully defended, and he thereupon, in order to prevent the said military stores from falling into the possession of the rebel forces, ordered Major Moore, one of the officers under his command, to destroy them.

In obedience to this order to destroy the said stores, and having no other means of doing so, Major Moore set fire to the city hall, and thereby the said building, with its contents, was consumed. Without other interference, agency, or instrumentality the fire spread along the line of the street aforesaid to the building next adjacent to the city hall, and from building to building through two other intermediate buildings to the store of the plaintiffs, and destroyed the same, together with its contents, including the goods insured by the defendant's policy aforesaid. During this time, and until after the fire had consumed such goods, the battle continued; and no surrender had taken place, nor had the forces of the rebels, nor any part thereof, obtained the possession of or entered the city.

In view of this stat of facts found by the court, the inquiry is, whether the rebel invasion or the usurping military force or power was the predominating and operative cause of the fire. The question is not what cause was nearest in time or place to the catastrophe. That is not the meaning of the maxim causa proxima, non remota spectatur.

The proximate cause is the efficient cause, the one that necessarily sets the other causes in operation. The causes that are merely incidental or instruments of a superior or controlling agency are not the proximate causes and the responsible ones, though they may be nearer in time to the result. It is only when the causes are independent of each other that the nearest is, of course, to be charged with the disaster. A careful consideration of the authorities will vindicate this rule. Mr. Phillips, in his work on Insurance, sect. 1097, in speaking of a nisi prius case of a vessel burnt by the master and crew to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy, Gordon v. Rimmington, 1 Camp. 123, says, the 'maxim causa proxima spectatur affords no help in these cases, but is, in fact, fallacious; for if two causes conspire, and one must be chosen, the more scientific inquiry seems to be, whether one is not the efficient cause, and the other merely instrumental or merely incidental, and not which is nearer in place or time to the consummation of the catastrophe.' And again, in sect. 1132: 'In case of the concurrence of different causes, to one of which it is necessary to attribute the loss, it is to be attributed to the efficient predominating peril, whether it is or is not in activity at the consummation of the disaster.' In Brady v. North-western Insurance Co., 11 Mich. 425, Martin, C. J., in delivering the opinion of the court, said: 'That which is the actual cause of the loss, whether operating directly or by putting intervening agencies, the operation of which could not be reasonably avoided, in motion, by which the loss is produced, is the cause to which such loss should be attributed.' In St. John v. American Mutual Insurance Co., 11 N. Y. 519, the insurance was against fire, but the policy exempted the insurers from any loss occasioned by the explosion of a steam-boiler. A fire occurred, caused by an explosion, which destroyed the insured property. The court, regarding the explosion, and not the fire, as the predominating cause of the loss, held the insurers not liable. Decisions are numerous to the same effect. Policies of insurance do not protect an assured against his voluntary destruction of the thing insured. Yet in Gordon v. Rimmington, supra, it was held that, when the captain of a ship insured against fire burned her to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy, it was a loss by fire within the meaning of the policy. It was because the fire was caused by the public enemy. The act of the captain was the nearest cause in time, but the danger of capture by the public enemy was regarded as the dominating cause. Vide also Emerigon, tom. i. p. 434. And we find the same principle followed in common practice. Often, in case of a fire, much of the destruction is caused by water applied in efforts to extinguish the flames. Yet it is not doubted all that destruction is caused by the fire, and insurers against fire are held liable for it. In Lynd v. Tynsboro', 11 Cush. (Mass.) 563, where it appeared that a traveller had been injured by leaping from his carriage, exercising ordinary care and prudence, in consequence of a near approach to a defect in a highway, the town was held liable, though the carriage did not come to the defect. The defect was regarded as the actual, the dominating, cause. And in this court similar doctrine has been asserted. Insurance Company v. Tweed, 7 Wall. 44, the principle of which case, we think, should rule the present. There it was, in effect, ruled that the efficient cause, the one that set others in motion, is the cause to which the loss is to be attributed, though the other causes may f llow it and operate more immediately in producing the disaster.

In Butler v. Wildman, 3 B. & A. 398, may be found a case where the captain of a Spanish ship, in order to prevent a quantity of Spanish dollars from falling into the hands of an enemy by whom he was about to be attacked, threw them into the sea. The suit was upon a policy insuring the dollars, and judgment was given for the plaintiff. Bayley, J., said, 'It was the duty of the master to prevent any thing which could strengthen the hands of the enemy from falling into their possession. Now, as money would strengthen the enemy, it was the duty of the master to throw it overboard; and the sacrifice of the money was, therefore, ex justa causa. It seems to me, therefore, this is a loss by jettison. But it is not a loss by jettison: it is a loss by enemies. It clearly falls within the principle stated by Emerigon, in the case of the destruction of a ship by fire; and I think the enemy was the proximate cause of the loss.' Holroyd, J., said, 'It seemed to him it was a loss by enemies, for the meditated attack was the direct cause of the loss.' A similar doctrine was asserted in Barton v. The Home Insurance Co., 42 Mo. 156; and in Marcy v. Merchants' Mutual Insurance Co., 19 La. Ann. 388. It is a doctrine resting upon reason, and in accord with the common understanding of men. Applying it to the facts found in the present case, the conclusion is inevitable, that the fire which caused the destruction of the plaintiffs' property happened or took place, not merely in consequence of, but by means of, the rebel invasion and military or usurped power. The fire occurred while the attack was in progress, and when it was about being successful. The attack, as a cause, never ceased to operate until the loss was complete. It was the causa causans which set in operation every agency that contributed to the destruction. It created the military necessity for the destruction of the military stores in the city hall, and made it the duty of the commanding officer of the Federal forces to destroy them. His act, therefore, in setting fire to the city hall, was directly in the line of the force set in motion by the usurping power, and what that power must have anticipated as a consequence of its action. It cannot be said that was not anticipated which military necessity recognized. And the insurers and the assured must have looked for such action by the Federal forces as a probable and reasonable consequence of an overpowering attack upon the city by an invading rebellious force. Having excepted from the risk undertaken responsibility for such an attack, they excepted with it responsibility for the consequences reasonably to be anticipated from it.

The court below regarded the action of the United States military authorities as a sufficient cause intervening between the rebel attack and the destruction of the plaintiffs' property, and therefore held it to be the responsible proximate cause. With this we cannot concur.

The proximate cause, as we have seen, is the dominant cause, not the one which is incidental to that cause, its mere instrument, though the latter may be nearest in place and time to the loss. In Milwaukee & Saint Paul Railway Co. v. Kellogg, 94 U.S. 469, we said, in considering what is the proximate and what the remote cause of an injury, 'The inquiry must always be whether there was any intermediate cause disconnected from the primary fault, and self-operating, which produced the injury.' In the present case, the burning of the city hall and the spread of the fire afterwards was not a new and independent cause of loss. On the contrary, it was an incident, a necessary incident and consequence, of the hostile rebel attack on the town,-a military necessity caused by the attack. It was one of a continuous chain of events brought into being by the usurped military power,-events so linked together as to form one continuous whole. The case is, therefore, clearly within the doctrine asserte by Emerigon, and held in Butler v. Wildman, and in the other cases we have cited. Hence it must be concluded that the fire which destroyed the plaintiffs' property took place by means of an invasion or military or usurped power, and that it was excepted from the risk undertaken by the insurers.

Judgment reversed and record remitted, with instructions to enter judgment for the defendant below.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).