Bigelow v. Berkshire Life Insurance Company

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

93 U.S. 284

Bigelow  v.  Berkshire Life Insurance Company

ERROR to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois.

This is an action on two policies issued by the defendant on the life of Henry W. Bigelow. Each contained a condition in avoidance, if the insured should die by suicide, sane or insane; and in such case the company agreed to pay to the party in interest the surrender value of the policy at the time of the death of Bigelow. The defendant pleaded that Bigelow died from the effects of a pistol-wound inflicted upon his person by his own hand, and that he intended by this means to destroy his life. To this the plaintiffs replied, that Bigelow, at the time when he inflicted the pistol-wound upon his person by his own hand, was of unsound mind, and wholly unconscious of the act. A demurrer to this replication was sustained by the court below, and the plaintiffs bring the case here for review.

Argued by Mr. Thomas Hoyne for the plaintiff in error.

An act of self-destruction has never been held to avoid a policy of life insurance, when the insane person has been so unsound of mind as to be unconscious of the act he was committing. Borradaile v. Hunter, 5 Mann. & Gr. 639; Hartman v. Keystone Ins. Co., 21 Penn. 466; Dean v. Mutual Life Ins. Co., 4 Allen, 96; Cooper v. Mass. Life Ins. Co., 102 Mass. 227; Eastbrook v. Union Ins. Co., 54 Me. 224; Breasted v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Co., 4 Hill, 73; 4 Seld. 299; 2 Bigelow, Life Ins. Cas. 4; Bliss, Life Ins., sect. 243, p. 415; Pierce v. Travellers' Ins. Co., 3 Ins. Law J. 422; Van Zandt v. Mutual Benefit Life Ins. Co., 55 N. Y. 177.

In all cases, sane or insane, the law allows the plaintiff to show that death was not intended by the deceased; but that it was an involuntary act, or a result of mental disease. Borradaile v. Hunter, supra; Hopps' Case, 31 Ill. 392.

The decided cases all establish that only persons capable of discriminating the particular act are to be held in law accountable. Van Zandt v. Mutual Benefit Life Ins. Co., supra; Bliss, Life Ins., supra; Pierce v. Travellers' Ins. Co., supra; Breasted v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Co., supra; Life Ins. Co. v. Terry, 15 Wall. 580, and cases there cited.

A suicide, 'sane or insane,' is a connection of words without meaning, if taken apart from their literal signification, or out of the context. Their real meaning as they stand connected with the other words of the proviso is, that, if the insured be sane or insane at the time he intentionally commits suicide, i.e., self-murder, the policy is to be void and of no effect.

Even if it be conceded that a death self-inflicted, whether a suicide or not, is within the terms of the policy, yet the fact that the death was not intentional, by reason of the insured's mental unconsciousness of his act, would clearly render the company liable.

Mr. H. G. Miller, contra.

MR. JUSTICE DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.


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).