Insurance Company v. Norton

Court Documents
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 234

Insurance Company  v.  Norton

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

This action was brought by Phoebe A. Norton on a policy of insurance, issued by the Knickerbocker Life Insurance Company of New York, on the life of Jesse O. Norton, for the benefit of his wife and children. The original policy was dated April 20, 1867; and, being partly destroyed by fire, was reissued in April, 1874. The premium was $385, payable annually on the twentieth day of April in each year; and the policy, amongst other things, contained the following condition:--

'Second, If the said premium shall not be paid on or before twelve o'clock, noon, on the day or days above mentioned for the payment thereof, at the office of the company in the city of New York (unless otherwise expressly agreed in writing), or to agents when they produce receipts signed by the president or secretary, or if the principal of or interest upon any note or other obligation given for the premium upon said policy shall not be paid at the time the same shall become due and payable, then, and in every such case, the company shall not be liable to pay the sum assured, or any part thereof; and said policy shall cease and be null and void, without notice to any party or parties interested herein, except that the stipulation for a new policy, as hereinbefore provided, shall remain in force.

'Third, In case a loan of or credit for a portion of said premium shall be made on this policy, said policy shall be subject to all of the terms and conditions expressed in the acknowledgment or obligation given for such loan or credit, and to the payment of interest thereon in advance; and said loan or credit shall be a just counter-claim against any amount which shall become due and payable on the policy, and shall be deducted therefrom.'

By an indorsement on the policy, it was declared that 'agents of the company are not authorized to make, alter, or abrogate contracts, or waive forfeitures.'

The insured died on the 3d of August, 1875; and the company refused to pay the insurance, on the ground that the policy was forfeited by reason of the non-payment of certain notes given for the last premium, which was due April 20, 1875. It was conceded that all the other premiums had been paid.

The declaration, besides a special count on the policy, contained the ordinary money counts. The defendant pleaded the general issue, and, specially, that the premium notes were not paid at maturity, and that the policy thereby became forfeited. The plaintiff replied, first, that the agent of the defendant at Chicago, regularly authorized by the defendant so to do, extended the time of payment of the first note, which became due on the 20th of June, to the 20th of July, when she tendered the amount thereof to the agent, who refused to receive the same; and that she also tendered the amount of the second note at its maturity, which was likewise refused: secondly, that, after the maturity of the first note, the agent of the defendant, regularly authorized so to do, waived all advantages the company might have claimed because of its non-payment at maturity, and extended the time of payment, as before stated, with an averment of tender and refusal. The defendant, by way of rejoinder, denied that it had extended the time of payment, or that it had waived any advantages, as alleged. This was the issue at the trial.

It appeared on the trial that the premium in question was settled by the payment of $50 in cash, and the balance in two promissory notes given by Jesse O. Norton to the insurance company, payable respectively in two and three months, and maturing, one on the 20th of June, the other on the 20th of July, 1875. Each note contained a clause, declaring that if it were not paid at maturity the policy would be void,-this being the usual form of premium notes.

On the issue as to extension of time on the notes, and the authority of the agent to grant it, the plaintiff produced three witnesses: Randall, agent of the company down to March, 1874; Frary, his successor, who was agent at the time in question; and Martin Norton, son of the insured, who acted in behalf of his father in reference to the alleged extension, and to the tender of payment.

The testimony of these witnesses tended to show that formerly the company had allowed their agent to extend time on premium notes for a period of ninety days; that this indulgence was afterwards reduced to sixty days, and then to thirty; and that, at the period in question, the agent was required, as a general thing, to return the notes in his hands if not paid by the 15th of the month following that in which they became due.

As to what took place with reference to the notes in question, there is some conflict in testimony between Martin Norton and the agent, Frary. The former testified, in substance, that he called on the agent, in behalf of his father, in June, 1875, a few days after the first note became due, and told him that his father wished it extended for thirty days; to which the agent agreed,-his answer being, 'All right.' That he called again on or about the 8th of July, to request an extension of the other note, which would become due on the 20th of that month, and a further extension of the first note to the 10th of August. That the agent said he would have to write to the company about this. That, on the 13th, he called again, and told the agent that his father had concluded to pay both notes; and the agent gave him the figures, showing what was due on them. That he called again on the 15th, prepared to pay the notes, when he was informed by the agent that he could not receive the money, having received orders from the company to return all the papers to New York, and he had done so. That he then made a legal tender of the amount due on the first note, which was refused. Frary testified that he had no recollection of the first interview, or of agreeing to extend the first note. As to the rest, they did not materially differ.

In addition to the testimony relating to the general practice of the agents in granting extensions of time for the payment of premium notes, evidence was given tending to show that Norton, the insured, had usually received more or less indulgence of that kind.

The counsel for the defendant moved to strike out the testimony touching the usages of the company as to non-payment of prior premium notes by Norton, and prior indulgence thereon to him, as incompetent, and in conflict with the terms of the policy, and as showing no authority in Frary to give the alleged extension; which was without consideration, if made, and after the forfeiture had occurred.

The counsel for the defendant also moved to strike out that portion of Martin Norton's testimony relative to an agreement for an extension of the premium notes, such agreement being without authority on the part of the agent, &c. The court overruled the latter motion; and, as to the first, directed the jury to disregard so much of Randall's testimony as tended to show the conduct of the defendant and plaintiff in regard to former payments; but allowed to stand so much of Randall's and Frary's testimony as tended to show the powers of the agents in reference to giving extensions on premiums or premium notes. This ruling was excepted to.

In charging the jury, the court left it to them to say, from the evidence, whether the agent of the defendant had power to waive a strict compliance with the terms of the agreement as to the time of paying the notes given for the premium; and, if he had such power, whether such a waiver was in fact made: if it was, and if the insured offered to pay the notes within the time to which they were extended, and the company refused to receive payment, that then the plaintiff was entitled to recover. The jury were further instructed that the power vested in Randall, the previous agent, was only pertinent as it tended to throw light on the powers vested in his successor, Frary. The defendant's counsel excepted to the charge, and submitted several instructions, the purport of them being, in substance, that, in view of the express provisions of the policy, the evidence was utterly irrelevant and incompetent to show any authority in the agent to grant any indulgence as to the time of paying the notes, and to waive the forfeiture incurred by their non-payment at maturity; or to show that any valid and legal extension was, in fact, granted, or that the forfeiture of the policy was waived.

These instructions were refused. There was a judgment for the plaintiff, whereupon the company sued out this writ of error.

Mr. H. G. Miller and Mr. Thomas G. Frost for the plaintiff in error.

The parties are bound by the policy, and the court must enforce it according to its tenor. Pitt v. Berkshire Life Insurance Co., 100 Mass. 500; Roehner v. Knickerbocker Life Insurance Co., 4 Daly (N. Y.), 412; Robert v. New England Life Insurance Co., 1 Disney (Ohio), 355; Fifty Associates v. Howland, 5 Cush. (Mass.) 214; Baker v. Union Mutual Life Insurance Co., 43 N. Y. 283; Howell v. Knickerbocker Life Insurance Co., 3 Robt. (N. Y.) 232; Catoir v. American Life Insurance and Trust Co., 33 N. J. L. 487; Wall v. Home Insurance Co., 36 N. Y. 157; New York Life Insurance Co. v. Statham et al., 93 U.S. 24; Beadle v. Chenango County Mutual Insurance Co., 3 Hill (N. Y.), 161; Shaw v. Berkshire Life Insurance Co., 103 Mass. 254; Bradley v. Potomac Fire Insurance Co., 32 Md. 108; Union Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. McMillen, 24 Ohio St. 67; Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. v. Ruse, 8 Ga. 534; Sullivan v. Cotton States Life Insurance Co., 43 id. 423.

The time of payment in such an instrument is material, and of the essence of the contract, and a failure to pay involves an absolute forfeiture, which the agent had no authority to waive, nor could he grant an extension of time for the payment of the premium note. Security Insurance Co. v. Fay, 22 Mich. 467.

When such extension was applied for, the forfeiture of the policy had been already incurred, and the pretended agreement for an extension was void, for want of consideration.

Mr. S. P. McConnell for the defendant in error.

Although a policy declares that agents have no power to waive a forfeiture or modify the contract of insurance, the company issuing it may nevertheless, by grant, authorize them to do either, or, by its conduct, estop itself from denying that such grant has been made. AEtna Insurance Co. v. Maguire et al., 51 Ill. 342; Perkins v. Washington Insurance Co., 4 Cow. (N. Y.) 645; Lightbody v. American Life Insurance Co., 23 Wend. (N. Y.) 18; McEwen v. Montgomery County Insurance Co., 5 Hill (N. Y.), 101; Eclectic Life Insurance Co. v. Fahrenkrug, 68 Ill. 463; Keenan v. Missouri State Mutual Insurance Co., 12 Iowa, 126.

The extent of the agent's authority is a question for the jury. Sheldon v. Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., 25 Conn. 207; Hough v. City Fire Insurance Co., 29 id. 10; Farmers' Mutual Insurance Co. v. Taylor, 73 Pa. St. 342.

A new consideration is not necessary to validate either the waiver of a forfeiture or an extension of time for the payment of the premium, or of the notes given therefor. Leslie v. Knickerbocker Life Insurance Co., 2 Hun (N. Y.), 616; Viele v. Germania Insurance Co., 26 Iowa, 9.

A party cannot insist upon a condition precedent, the breach of which he caused. Young v. Hunter, 6 N. Y. 203.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, after stating the case, 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).