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Howard Fire Insurance Company v. Transportation Company/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

79 U.S. 194

Howard Fire Insurance Company  v.  Transportation Company

Mr. Phillips, in his Treatise on the Law of Insurance, lays down two rules respecting the concurrence of different causes of loss, which the plaintiffs in error contend should be applied to this case, and which, if applied, they insist must lead to a reversal of the judgment in the court below. [1] The first of these is:

'In case of the concurrence of two causes of loss, one at the risk of the assured, and the other insured against, or one insured against by A., and the other by B., if the damage by the perils respectively can be discriminated, each party must bear his proportion.' The second is:

'Where different parties, whether the assured and the underwriter, or different underwriters, are responsible for different causes of loss, and the damage by each cannot be distinguished, the party responsible for the predominating efficient cause, or that by which the operation of the other is directly occasioned, as being merely incidental to it, is liable to bear the loss.'

These propositions may be accepted as correct statements of the law, and the question before us is, whether the Circuit Court, in giving judgment for the assured, failed to apply them rightly to the facts of the case.

The insurance in this case was against all such loss or damage, not exceeding the sum insured, as should happen to the property by fire, other than fire happening by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power. Thus loss from fire happening in consequence of every other cause than those excepted was covered by the policy. The insurers took the risk of fires caused by lightning, explosions, and collisions. Such was the contract.

It is urged on behalf of the plaintiffs in error the findings in the case establish that the sinking of the steamer, wherein consisted principally the loss, or that part of it in excess of $15,000 chargeable to the collision, was the result of two concurrent causes, one the fire, and the other the water in the steamer's hold, let in by the breach made by the collision. As the influx of the water was the direct and necessary consequence of the collision, it is argued that the collision was the predominating, and, therefore, the proximate cause of the loss. The argument overlooks the fact, distinctly found, that the damage resulting from the sinking of the vessel was the natural and necessary result of the fire only. If it be said that this was but an inference from facts previously found, it was not for that reason necessarily a mere legal conclusion. But we need not rely upon this. Apart from that finding, the other findings, unquestionably of facts, show that neither the collision, nor the presence of water in the steamer's hold was the predominating efficient cause of her going to the bottom. That result required the agency of the fire. It is found that the water would not have caused the vessel to sink below her promenade deck, had not some other cause of sinking supervened. It would have expended its force at that point. The effects of the fire were necessary to give it additional efficiency. The fire was, therefore, the efficient predominating cause, as well as nearest in time to the catastrophe, which not only directly contributed to all the damage done, after the steamer had sunk to her promenade deck, but enlarged the destructive power of the water, and rendered certain the submergence of the vessel. This plainly appears, if we suppose that the fire had occurred on the day after the collision, and had originated from some other cause than the collision itself. The effects of the prior disaster would then have been complete. The steamer would have been full of water, sunk to her promenade deck, and, remaining thus suspended, would have been towed to a place of safety and saved, in that condition, to her owners, except for the new injury. But the fire occurring on the next day, destroying the upper works and the housing, thus liberating the light freight and greatly reducing the floating capacity of the steamer, would have caused her to sink to the bottom as she did. In the case supposed the water would have been as truly a concurrent and efficient cause of the steamer's sinking, as it was in the case now in hand. It would have operated in precisely the same manner, remaining dormant until given new activity. But could there have been any hesitation in that case, in determining which was the proximate, the efficient, predominating cause of the sinking of the vessel? And can it be doubted that the underwriters against loss by fire would be held responsible for such a loss? Wherein does the case supposed differ in principle from the present, when the facts found are considered? True, the fire in this case was caused by the collision, but the policy insured against fire caused by collision. True, the fire immediately followed the filling of the steamer with water, or commenced while she was filling, but the effects of the fire are conclusively distinguished from the breach in the steamer's hull, and the filling of her hold with water. The damages caused by the several agencies have been discriminated, and its proper share assigned to each. It is an established fact that the damaging effect of the water, independent of the fire, would not have reached beyond sinking of the steamer to its upper deck, when she would have been saved from further injury.

There is, undoubtedly, difficulty, in many cases, attending the application of the maxim, 'proxima causa, non remota spectatur,' but none when the causes succeed each other in order of time. In such cases the rule is plain. When one of several successive causes is sufficient to produce the effect (for example, to cause a loss), the law will never regard an antecedent cause of that cause, or the 'causa causans.' [2] In such a case there is no doubt which cause is the proximate one within the meaning of the maxim. But, when there is no order of succession in time, when there are two concurrent causes of a loss, the predominating efficient one must be regarded as the proximate, when the damage done by each cannot be distinguished. Such is, in effect, Mr. Phillips's rule. And certainly that cause which set the other in motion and gave to it its efficiency for harm at the time of the disaster must rank as predominant. In the present case, however, the rule hardly seems applicable, because the damage resulting from the fire and that caused by the filling of the steamer are clearly distinguished.

It is true, as argued, that as the insurance in this case was only against fire, the assured must be regarded as having taken the risk of collision, and it is also true that the collision caused the fire, but it is well settled that when an efficient cause nearest the loss is a peril expressly insured against, the insurer is not to be relieved from responsibility by his showing that the property was brought within that peril by a cause not mentioned in the contract. [3] The case quoted- St. John v. The American Mutual Insurance Company-is instructive, and is, in one particular at least, responsive to the argument of the plaintiffs in error. It exhibits the difference, in effect, between an express exception from a risk undertaken, and silence in regard to a peril not insured against. The policy, as here, was against fire, but it contained a provision that the company would not be liable 'for any loss occasioned by the explosion of a steam boiler.' While it was in force there was an explosion of a steam boiler which caused the destruction of the property insured by fire. It was held the insurers were not liable. The proviso, or exception, was construed as extending to fire caused by such explosions, for, as the parties were contracting about the peril of fire alone, an express exception of all loss from explosions must have been meant to cover fire when a consequence of explosions, otherwise the exception would have been unmeaning. But the court said, if nothing had been said in the policy respecting a steam boiler, the loss, having been occasioned by fire, as its proximate cause, would have rested on the insurers, though it had been shown, as it might have been, that the fire was kindled by means of the explosion. The judgment thus turned on the effect of an express exception. Had there been none, the court would not have inquired how the fire happened, whether by an explosion or not. In the case before us there is no exception of collisions, or fires caused by collisions. It must therefore be understood that the insurers took the risk of all fires not expressly excepted.

It has been argued that because the policy was against fire only, the assured are to be considered their own insurers against perils of the sea, including collisions, and as insurers against marine risks are liable for collisions, with all their consequences, including fires, the assured in this case must be held to have undertaken that risk. This would be so if they had taken out no policy against fire. But that works a material difference. Suppose these underwriters had insured the steamer against collisions and fire, and had then reinsured in another company against fire alone, as they might have done, would it have been a sufficient answer to a suit brought by them against their insurers, that the fire which caused the steamer to sink was itself caused by a collision? No one will affirme that. Yet upon the theory of the plaintiffs in error, this is substantially what is now attempted. Before any policy was issued, the Transportation Company were their own insurers against collisions and fire, no matter how caused. They sought protection against some of the possible consequences of these risks, and they obtained a policy insuring them against all loss by fire, except fire caused by certain things, of which collision was not one. Against every other consequence of a collision than a fire, they remained their own insurers, but the risk of fire was no longer theirs.

We have already sufficiently said that the amount of the loss caused by the collision, apart from the fire, was distinctly ascertained, and the insurers were not charged with it. So was the amount of loss caused by the fire itself ascertained. If therefore it was a case of the concurrence of two causes of loss, one at the risk of the assured, and the other of the insurers, the damage resulting from each has been discriminated, and the insurers have been held liable only for that caused by the peril against which they contracted. [4]

Judgment has therefore been given in conformity with the rules as above stated, in Phillips on Insurance. It is


At the same time with the preceding case was adjudged another, in error, from the same circuit, to wit, that of


In which the controlling question was the same as in the case just reported-a question which the court said that they did not propose to reconsider. This second case had been adjudged below, before the other one, and not on a finding of facts by the court, but on a verdict by a jury; the issues of fact being submitted to it under instructions from the court.

In this second case the policy provided that the loss or damage should be estimated according to the true and actual cash value of the said property 'at the time the fire should happen;' and evidence of the value of the steamer before the collision took place having been offered by the owners of the steamer, the insurance company objected to it, and on their objection it was excluded.

Evidence was allowed to be given against the defendants' objection, to show how much it cost to raise the steamer, and $22,500 were allowed; the value of the wreck when recovered.

The plaintiff based his estimate of damages upon the cost of repairing and restoring the vessel to her former condition, exclusive of the amount properly chargeable to the collision.

The judge charged, that the main question for the jury to determine was whether the loss sustained by the plaintiffs was the natural, necessary, and inevitable consequence of the fire. Then, after referring to the facts as proved, he added:

'The question is, would the steamer have gone to the bottom but for the fire? This is a vital question, and must be decided by the jury before the plaintiff can recover. You will say, in view of the evidence, whether she would have gone to the bottom or only settled down to her promenade deck and remained suspended in the water but for the effect produced by the fire. If she would not have sunk but only settled in the water to the promenade deck, except for the effect of the fire in reducing her floating capacity, then the plaintiffs are entitled to recover.'

As to the damages, after stating the plaintiffs' base of estimate, he said:

'You will determine upon the evidence whether in your judgment the repairs that were put upon her enhanced her value beyond her cash value before the commencement of the fire. If they did, you will deduct from the damage you find proved a sum equal to such increase of value.'

The jury found for the plaintiffs, and judgment went accordingly.

The case was argued by the same counsel as the preceding one; the objection by the counsel of the insurance company, plaintiffs in error, being to the charge on the main question, to the instruction as to damages and on the admission of the evidence to show how much it cost to raise the steamer, which the learned counsel contended that the defendants could not in any event be liable for, the rule of damages being fixed in the policy.

Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.

As the issues of fact in this case were submitted to a jury, it is to be considered whether they were submitted with proper instructions.

It is complained that the Circuit Court instructed the jury that the way to determine the question whether the insurers were liable was to consider and determine whether the steamer would have sunk except for the effect of the fire. This is hardly a fair statement of the manner in which the case was submitted. The charge must be taken, not in detached portions, but according to its general tenor and effect. That what the judge did charge, was, in our opinion, proper instruction, is sufficiently shown by what we have said in the case just decided. We have also shown that the policy contained no implied exception against the consequences of any marine peril.

The only other thing which need be noticed is the allegation of the plaintiffs in error that the jury were instructed to ascertain the amount of the damage, not by reference to the actual cash value of the subject, but by the cost of restoration. If this complaint were founded in fact, it would call for a reversal of the judgment, for the policy stipulated that loss or damage should be estimated according to the true and actual cash value of the property at the time the same should happen. But when the insured offered evidence to prove what was the actual cash value of the steamer before the collision, from which the damage caused by the collision might have been deducted, and thus the cash value of the property at the time when the fire attacked it might have been ascertained, the plaintiffs in error objected and the evidence was excluded. There remained, then, no way of establishing the cash value except by ascertaining the cost of restoration to the condition in which the steamer was before the fire. This was allowed, but the jury were instructed that if the cost of repairs exceeded the damage done by the fire they should deduct the excess. It is plain, therefore, that under such instructions the loss of the assured must have been measured by the standard provided in the policy.

It is sufficient to say of the admission of evidence to prove how much it cost to raise the steamer, that if it was erroneous it did no harm. The value of the boat when raised was proved to have been exactly equal to the cost of raising her, and the insurers had the benefit of it.

Nothing need be said of the other exceptions. They were not pressed in the oral argument, or in the printed briefs, and they exhibit no error.


^1  Phillips on Insurance, vol. i, §§ 1136, 1137.

^2  General Mutual Insurance Company v. Sherwood, 14 Howard, 366.

^3  St. John v. The American Mutual Insurance Company, 1 Kernan, 519.

^4  Vide Heebner v. Eagle Insurance Company, 10 Gray, 143.

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).