Ray v. Smith/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 411

Ray  v.  Smith

Whether timely presentment of the notes was made to the maker, and whether due notice of their dishonor was given to the defendant who had indorsed them, are questions which were not submitted to the jury. The court below appears to have been of opinion, that in view of the facts given in evidence, neither demand of payment nor notice to the indorser was necessary to justify a recovery against him. The jury was instructed in substance, that even if there was no legal demand and notice, the want of them was sufficiently excused; and that the plaintiff was entitled to a verdict for the amount of the notes with interest from the dates when, according to their terms, they fell due. It is necessary, therefore, to inquire whether the evidence, as exhibited in the bill of exceptions, warranted such instructions.

It is undoubtedly the law, that though the plaintiff was relieved by the war from obligation to make demand upon the maker of the notes when they came to maturity, it was necessary for him, in order to charge the indorser, to make such demand within a reasonable time after it became possible; that is, after the close of the war; unless he was excused by the fact that the indorser had sufficient funds of the maker in hand, which he had received in the course of a current business, and which he had authority to apply to the payment of the notes at their maturity. And whether that alone constituted a sufficient excuse, is the real question now.

An indorser of a promissory note is only secondarily liable. His responsibility is, in its nature, a contingent one, and ordinarily, performance of the condition to make demand of the maker and give notice of his default in due time is an essential part of the title of one who asserts an indorser's liability. It has often been regretted that courts have dispensed with the performance of that condition for any cause. Still, the principal reason for the requirement of demand and notice is, that the indorser, if looked to for payment, may have the earliest opportunity to take steps for his own protection. Hence, it has been said, in some cases, that when by no possibility a failure to make demand and give notice could have injured him, or rather, when they could by no possibility have enabled him to protect himself, proof of demand and notice are not necessary. It must be admitted there had been much inconsistency in the decisions respecting the application of this rule. In some, it has been held that if an indorser has taken an indemnity from the maker, he is not entitled to notice of default. But this is not sustained by sound reason, and the best-considered cases assert the contrary doctrine. The indemnity may prove insufficient. At all events, it is not inconsistent with the existence of a remedy over against the maker, and the correct rule, as stated by Bailey, J., in Brown v. Maffey, [*] is that every indorser ought to have notice whenever he has a remedy over. All the cases agree, however, that when, by arrangement between the maker and the indorser, the latter has become the principal debtor, and primarily liable, he may not insist upon notice. Presentment to the maker followed by notice to himself can be of no service to him, for he has no remedy over. And he becomes the principal debtor when, either before or at the maturity of the note, he is supplied by the maker with sufficient funds for the purpose of paying it. Receiving the funds for such an avowed purpose, he assumes an obligation to take up the note; and, as has been said, he may be regarded as an agent who has undertaken to pay, and who, therefore, cannot be disappointed if his principal, trusting to his obligation, takes no further steps for the payment.

In the present case, the evidence does not necessarily establish that the funds which the indorser held were placed in his hands for the purpose of paying the notes. They were derived from the profits of the business, in conducting which he was a partner of the maker; and he was merely authorized to apply them to the payment of the notes, at their maturity. Whether this proved the existence of an obligation assumed by him to take them up, or in other words, whether, as between him and the maker, he thus became the primary debtor, is a question which the court could not correctly answer in the affirmative as a conclusion of law. If it did establish such an obligation, absence of demand and notice were immaterial, and the plaintiff was entitled to a verdict. But if it did not, if the indorser, as between himself and the maker, had not become the principal debtor, if the authority to pay the notes out of the fund in his hands was only an arrangement for his indemnity, we think he was at liberty to pay them to the maker at any time after the maturity of the notes, and before he had any notice that they remained unpaid. In such a case, his liability to the holder remained contingent, and consequently, unless there was a legal demand and notice, he cannot be charged. It follows, that the judge of the court below erred in directing a verdict for the plaintiff. The most that could properly be claimed by the holder of the notes, was that the evidence should be submitted to the jury to find whether it proved that the defendant had become the principal debtor by arrangement between him and the maker, with instructions that if it did, the plaintiff was entitled to recover; and that if it did not, the indorser could not be held liable without proof of reasonable demand upon the maker, and notice.

Nothing more need be said respecting the charge given to the jury. But as the case goes back for another trial, it is proper to notice an exception taken to the refusal of the court to suppress the deposition of the plaintiff. The deposition had been taken de bene esse, and before the trial the defendant moved to suppress it. But when it was offered at the trial, it was read without objection, and without exception. It may be that had it been objected to then, it should not have been received. But after having permitted it to be read at the trial without opposition, we think it cannot be objected now that the court received it.



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