Life Insurance Company v. Terry

Life Insurance Company v. Terry by Ward Hunt
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

82 U.S. 580

Life Insurance Company  v.  Terry

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of Kansas.

Mary Terry brought an action in the court below against the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, to recover the sum of $2000, claimed by her as due upon a policy of insurance on the life of her husband George Terry, made and issued to her as his wife.

The policy contained a condition, of which a portion was in these words:

'If the said person, whose life is hereby insured, . . . shall die by his own hand, . . . this policy shall be null and void.'

Within the term of the policy, George Terry died from the effects of poison taken by him.

Evidence was given tending to show that at the time he took the poison he was insane. Evidence was also given tending to show that at that time he was sane, and capable of knowing the consequences of the act he was about to commit.

Thereupon the counsel for the defendant requested the court to instruct the jury thus:

'First. If the jury believe from the evidence in the case, that the said George Terry destroyed his own life; and that, at the time of self-destruction, he had sufficient capacity to understand the nature of the act which he was about to commit, and the consequences which would result from it, then, and in that case, the plaintiff cannot recover on the policy declared on in this case.

'Second. That if the jury believe from the evidence that the self-destruction of the said George Terry was intended by him, he having sufficient capacity at the time to understand the nature of the act which he was about to commit, and the consequences which would result from it, then, and in that case, it is wholly immaterial in the present case that he was impelled thereto by insanity, which impaired his sense of moral responsibility, and rendered him, to a certain extent, irresponsible for his action.'

The court refused to give either of these instructions, and charged as follows:

'It being agreed that the deceased destroyed his life by taking poison, it is claimed by defendant that he 'died by his own hand,' within the meaning of the policy, and that they are therefore, not liable.

'This is so far true that it devolves on the plaintiff to prove such insanity on the part of the decedent, existing at the time he took the poison, as will relieve the act of taking his own life from the effect which, by the general terms used in the policy, self-destruction was to have, namely, to avoid the policy.

'It is not every kind or degree of insanity which will so far excuse the party taking his own life as to make the company insuring liable.

'To do this, the act of self-destruction must have been the consequence of the insanity, and the mind of the decedent must have been so far deranged as to have made him incapable of using a rational judgment in regard to the act which he was committing.

'If he was impelled to the act by an insane impulse which the reason that was left him did not enable him to resist, or if his reasoning powers were so far overthrown by his mental condition that he could not exercise his reasoning faculties on the act he was about to do, the company is liable. On the other hand, there is no presumption of law, prim a facie or otherwise, that self-destruction arises from insanity, and if you believe from the evidence that the decedent, although excited, or angry, or distressed in mind, formed the determination to take his own life, because, in the exercise of his usual reasoning faculties, he preferred death to life, then the company is not liable, because he died by his own hand within the meaning of the policy.'

The cause came to this court on exceptions to the refusal of the court to give the instructions requested by the insurance company, and to the charge which was actually given.

The case was submitted on briefs; where it was elaborately argued on principle and precedents by Messrs. H. E. and J. T. Davies, for the plaintiff in error: the English case of Borradaile v. Hunter [1] being referred to as the leading one, where the rule, it was said, was early settled in England against the pretensions of cases like the present, and settled in accord with what the counsel maintained was a just construction of the words of the contract; a case, it was urged, which had been supported by the weight of authorities both in England and with us; as Clift et al. v. Schwabe, [2] Dufaur v. Professional Life Insurance Co., [3] Cooper v. The Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., [4] Nimick et al. v. Mutual Life Insurance Co., [5] and Gay v. Union Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. [6]

Mr. W. W. Nevison, contra, relied on Breasted v. The Farmers' Loan and Trust Co., [7] Barrett v. Buxton, [8] State v. Felter, [9] and submitted that the charge of the court below was in truth sustained by the Circuit Court for Connecticut, in Gay v. Union Mutual Life Insurance Co., relied on by the other side.

Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.


  1. 5 Manning & Granger, 639.
  2. 3 Manning, Granger & Scott, 437.
  3. 25 Bevan, 602.
  4. 102 Massachusetts, 227.
  5. 10 American Law Register, New Series, 101.
  6. 9 Blatchford, 142.
  7. 4 Hill, 73; S.C.. on appeal, 4 Selden, 299.
  8. 2 Aikens, 167.
  9. 25 Iowa, 67.

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).