Travellers' Ins. Co. v. McConkey , 127 U.S. 661 ( 1888 )

  • 127 U.S. 661 (1888)


    No. 273.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued May 2, 1888.
    Decided May 14, 1888.

    *665 Mr. B.D. Lee for plaintiff in error. Mr. John P. Ellis was with him on the brief.

    Mr. W.G. Thompson for defendant in error. Mr. H.B. Fouke was with him on the brief.

    *666 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

    There is no escape from the conclusion that, under the issue presented by the general denial in the answer, it was incumbent upon the plaintiff to show, from all the evidence, that the death of the insured was the result, not only of external and violent, but of accidental means. The policy provides that the insurance shall not extend to any case of death or personal injury, unless the claimant under the policy establishes, by direct and positive proof, that such death or personal injury was caused by external violence and accidental means. Such being the contract, the court must give effect to its provisions according to the fair meaning of the words used, leaning, however, — where the words do not clearly indicate the intention of the parties, — to that interpretation which is most favorable to the insured. National Bank v. Ins. Co., 95 U.S. 673; Western Ins. Co. v. Cropper, 32 Penn. St. 351, 355; Reynolds v. Commerce Fire Ins. Co., 47 N.Y. 597, 604; Anderson v. Fitzgerald, 4 H.L. Cas. 484, 498, 507; Fowkes v. Manchester &c. Life Assurance Ass'n, 3 Barb. & S. 917, 925.

    The requirement, however, of direct and positive proof, as to certain matters, did not make it necessary to establish the fact and attendant circumstances of death by persons who were actually present when the insured received the injuries which caused his death. The two principal facts to be established were external violence and accidental means, producing death. The first was established when it appeared that death ensued from a pistol shot through the heart of the insured. The evidence on that point was direct and positive; as much so, within the meaning of the policy, as if it had come from one who saw the pistol fired; and the proof, on this point, is none the less direct and positive, because supplemented or strengthened by evidence of a circumstantial character.

    Were the means by which the insured came to his death also accidental? If he committed suicide, then the law was for the company, because the policy by its terms did not extend to or cover self-destruction, whether the insured was *667 at the time sane or insane. In respect to the issue as to suicide, the court instructed the jury that self-destruction was not to be presumed. In Mallory v. Travellers' Ins. Co., 47 N.Y. 52, 54, which was a suit upon an accident policy, it appeared that the death was caused either by accidental injury or by the suicidal act of the deceased. "But," the court properly said, "the presumption is against the latter. It is contrary to the general conduct of mankind; it shows gross moral turpitude in a sane person." Did the court err in saying to the jury that, upon the issue as to suicide, the law was for the plaintiff, unless that presumption was overcome by competent evidence? This question must be answered in the negative. The condition that direct and positive proof must be made of death having been caused by external, violent, and accidental means, did not deprive the plaintiff, when making such proof, of the benefit of the rules of law established for the guidance of courts and juries in the investigation and determination of facts.

    Upon like grounds, we sustain the ruling to the effect that the jury should not presume, from the mere fact of death, that the insured was murdered. The facts were all before the jury as to the movements of the insured on the evening of his death, and as to the condition of his body and clothes when he was found dead, at a late hour of the night, upon the floor of his office. While it was not to be presumed, as a matter of law, that the deceased took his own life, or that he was murdered, the jury were at liberty to draw such inferences in respect to the cause of death as, under the settled rules of evidence, the facts and circumstances justified.

    We are, however, of opinion that the instructions to the jury were radically wrong in one particular. The policy expressly provides that no claim shall be made under it where the death of the insured was caused by "intentional injuries, inflicted by the insured or any other person." If he was murdered, then his death was caused by intentional injuries inflicted by another person. Nevertheless, the instructions to the jury were so worded as to convey the idea that if the insured was murdered, the plaintiff was entitled to recover; in other *668 words, even if death was caused wholly by intentional injuries inflicted upon the insured by another person, the means used were "accidental" as to him, and therefore the company was liable. This was error.

    Upon the whole case, the court is of opinion that, by the terms of the contract, the burden of proof was upon the plaintiff, under the limitations we have stated, to show, from all the evidence, that the death of the insured was caused by external violence and accidental means; also, that no valid claim can be made under the policy, if the insured, either intentionally or when insane, inflicted upon himself the injuries which caused his death, or if his death was caused by intentional injuries inflicted upon him by some other person.

    The judgment is accordingly reversed, and the cause remanded, with directions to grant a new trial and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Document Info

DocketNumber: 273

Citation Numbers: 127 U.S. 661, 8 S. Ct. 1360, 32 L. Ed. 308, 1888 U.S. LEXIS 2030

Judges: Harlan, After Stating the Case

Filed Date: 5/14/1888

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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