St. Louis Beef Co. v. Casualty Co. , 201 U.S. 173 ( 1906 )

  • 201 U.S. 173 (1906)


    No. 197.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued March 7, 1906.
    Decided March 19, 1906.

    *179 Mr. Ford W. Thompson with whom Mr. William B. Thompson and Mr. Ralph Crews were on the brief, for St. Louis Beef Co.

    Mr. Frank Gosnell and Mr. Geo. Weems Williams for the Casualty Co..

    *180 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    An elementary remark or two will do something toward answering these questions. The form of the declaration does not appear, but we may suppose a count upon the Casualty Company's refusal to defend the suit against the plaintiff. If the defendant's contention is right, that breach made it impossible for the plaintiff to entitle itself to the payment promised in the policy according to its terms. But the defendant could not set *181 itself free by so simple a device. In general, when one party by his fault prevents the other party to a contract from entitling himself to a benefit under it according to its terms, the former is liable for the value of that benefit less the value or cost of what the plaintiff would have had to do to get it. In this case the plaintiff had nothing more to do or to pay after it had been compelled to satisfy the claim against it. And therefore, on general principles, it would be entitled to demand the whole amount which the jury might find that it would have received had the contract been performed. Hinckley v. Pittsburg Bessemer Steel Co., 121 U.S. 264.

    It is suggested, to be sure, that the plaintiff should have defended the suit against it. But not only was that not one of the plaintiff's undertakings, but it was expressly forbidden to the plaintiff by the contract, as no doubt the defendant would have pointed out had that course been taken. Moreover, the defendant, by its refusal, cut at the very root of the mutual obligation and put an end to its right to demand further compliance with the supposed term of the contract on the other side. The only concern of the plaintiff was to establish reasonable ground for believing that if the defendant had not broken its contract it would have been called on to make a payment to the plaintiff, and how much that payment would have been.

    Looking at the substance of the matter, it makes no practical difference, no difference in the amount of the defendant's liability, whether we say that the defendant by its conduct made performance of the conditions by the plaintiff impossible, and therefore was chargeable for the sum which it would have had to pay if those conditions had been performed, or answer, in the language of the questions, that performance of the conditions was waived. The sole difference would be in the form of the declaration. In either case the plaintiff would declare upon the policy, only the breaches assigned would not be the same. In the former the breach would be the refusal to defend, in the latter the refusal to pay. If it is necessary to consider *182 the question in a technical aspect, we think that the plaintiff was entitled to treat the contract as on foot, notwithstanding the defendant's act, and go on with it cypres. Under the circumstances it could not comply literally with the words, and was justified in doing the best thing that could be done for the interest of both. The defendant by its abdication put the plaintiff in its place with all its rights. To limit its liability as if its only promise was to pay a loss paid upon a judgment is to neglect the meaning and purpose of the reference to a judgment, and even the words of the promise. The promise in form is to indemnify against loss by certain kinds of liability. The judgment contemplated in the condition is a judgment in a suit defended by the defendant in case it elects not to settle. The substance of the promise is to pay a loss which the plaintiff shall have been compelled to pay, after such precautions and with such safeguards as the defendant may insist upon. It saw fit to insist upon none.

    We assume that the settlement was reasonable, and that the plaintiff could not expect to escape at less cost by defending the suits. If this were otherwise no doubt the defendant would profit by the fact. The defendant did not agree to repay a gratuity, or more than fairly could be said to have been paid upon compulsion. But a sum paid in the prudent settlement of a suit is paid under the compulsion of the suit as truly as if it were paid upon execution.

    But there is another aspect of the eighth condition of the slip which requires a few words more. It is said that this condition expressly contemplates a breach of contract by the company and defines the plaintiff's rights in that case. The words "no action shall lie against the company as respects any loss under this policy unless, " etc., certainly do contemplate a case in court in which the company may turn out to be in the wrong, and therefore technically guilty of a breach of contract. But notwithstanding the contrary suggestion in Sanders v. Frankfort Marine, Accident & Plate Glass Ins. Co., 72 N.H. 485, 498, 499, we think that the only breach which that condition has *183 in view is a refusal by the company to pay after the decision in a case of which it has taken charge, when, notwithstanding the judgment, it conceives itself to have a defense. The action referred to is an action for money alleged to be due under the policy. Contracts rarely provide in detail for their non-performance. It would be stretching the words quoted to a significance equally hurtful to both parties, and probably equally absent from the minds of both, to read them as having within their scope an initial repudiation of liability by the defendant and a requirement that in that event the plaintiff should be bound to try the case against itself, although it should be plain that by a compromise it could reduce its claim on the defendant as well as its own loss.

    If there is anything in the doubt whether the defendant, by assuming the defense of the original suit, would not lose its right to deny that the policy applied, even if it purported to save that right, it does not change our opinion. The requirement of a trial and judgment would not accomplish the object suggested, to make collusion impossible. The objections to thus hampering the dominus litis have been touched upon, and there would be presented the anomaly, if not the monstrosity, of a party attempting to provide by contract that if he should do what by general principles of contract forfeited his right to make further requirements of the other side, his conduct, on the contrary; should impose new obligations on the other side. If the defendant kept its contract, it would defend the suit, and the plaintiff would have no duties. If it refused to do as it had promised, we cannot think that it was entitled to complain that the plaintiff did not do it when the interest of both was the other way. Before a policy should be construed to have such an extraordinary effect honesty requires that the assured should be notified of his duties in unmistakable words.

    We answer the first, second, fourth and fifth questions in the affirmative, the third in the negative and the sixth in the affirmative, so far as the question is warranted by the facts set forth.

    It will be so certified.

Document Info

DocketNumber: 197

Citation Numbers: 201 U.S. 173, 26 S. Ct. 400, 50 L. Ed. 712, 1906 U.S. LEXIS 1808

Judges: Holmes, After Making the Foregoing Statement

Filed Date: 3/19/1906

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 5/4/2017

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