Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Newton
ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Mrs. Newton, widow of J. H. Newton, brought suit in the court below, against the Mutual Life Insurance Company, of Newark, New Jersey, upon two policies of insurance on the life of her husband, issued by the company's agent at St. Louis.
The policies stipulated for the payment of the insurancemoney within ninety days after due notice and proof of the death of the party insured, but they provided also that the policies should be void if the insured should die by his own hand.
In answer to the action, the company averred that the insured did thus die, and that the policies thereupon ceased to be binding.
The insured died at Los Angeles, in California, in June, 1870, and proofs of his death were delivered by the father of the plaintiff to the agent of the company in August following. These proofs consisted of several affidavits, giving the time, place, and circumstances of his death, and the record of the finding of the jury upon the coroner's inquest. The finding was that the deceased came to his death 'by a pistolshot fired by a pistol in his own hand through the heart.'
On the trial, the father of the plaintiff testified that he was the agent, in the matter of these policies, of his daughter, and that, acting in that capacity, he had delivered the written proofs mentioned to the agent of the company at St. Louis, and had demanded payment of him, and afterwards also of the officers of the company at the home office in Newark; that at neither place was any objection made either by the agent or the officers of the company to the form or fulness of the proofs of the death of the insured; that the agent had said that they were sufficient as to form, but that at both places objection was made, at the same time, that the proofs disclosed a case of suicide, and on that account payment of the insurance was refused.
The plaintiff having closed her case, the company offered as evidence the preliminary proofs of the death of the party insured, and presented to the company by the father, as above said. The court excluded them, and the company excepted. In its charge, the court having referred to the affidavits presented by the plaintiff, said:'It appears that the company, upon receiving the affidavits, claimed that they showed that Newton had taken his own life, and refused to pay; and the agent has so testified on the stand as a witness, and says the company never denied or doubted the fact of Newton's death, and that the affidavits showed it; but placed their refusal to pay upon the distinct and specific ground that he took his own life, and that this fact appeared (as the company claimed) from the proofs of loss furnished by the plaintiff.
'Under these circumstances, the court instructs you that the defence based upon want of notice and proof of death, is not sustained.
'On the merits the company sets up the defence that the deceased 'died by his own hand;' that is, that he purposely took his own life. This defence is met by a denial.
'This is an affirmative defence, and hence the burden of showing, by a fair preponderance of testimony, that Newton purposely took his own life, rests upon the defendant.'
To this charge the defendant excepted, and verdict and judgment having been rendered for the plaintiff the company brought the case here, on exceptions to the evidence and to the charge.
Messrs. F. T. Frelinghuysen and E. L. Stanton, for the plaintiff in error, cited 1 Greenleaf on Evidence,  Campbell v. Charter Oak Insurance Company,  Irving v. Excelsior Insurance Company,  and other cases,  to show that the whole of the admission must go to the jury, or none of it, and that the preliminary proofs of death were properly admitted, if not by way of estoppel at least as evidence to be considered by the jury.
Mr. T. Z. Blakeman, contra, and in support of the judgment, relied on Cluff v. Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company  as in point.
Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.
^1 Sections 201, 202.
^2 10 Allen, 213.
^3 1 Bosworth, 507.
^4 AEtna Insurance Co. v. Stevens, 48 Illinois, 31; Hoffman v. AEtna Insurance Co., 1 Robertson, 501; affirmed, 32 New York, 405; New York Central Insurance Co. v. Watson, 23 Michigan, 486.
^5 99 Massachusetts, 317