178 U.S. 327 (1900), 12, Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Phinney

Docket Nº:No. 12
Citation:178 U.S. 327, 20 S.Ct. 906, 44 L.Ed. 1088
Party Name:Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Phinney
Case Date:May 28, 1900
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 327

178 U.S. 327 (1900)

20 S.Ct. 906, 44 L.Ed. 1088

Mutual Life Insurance Company



No. 12

United States Supreme Court

May 28, 1900

Argued January 22-23, 1900




Upon the showing made by the court of appeals, it is clear that that court had jurisdiction, and should have proceeded to dispose of this case on its merits instead of dismissing it for want of jurisdiction.

The plaintiff in error is a corporation, organized under the laws of the New York and doing business as life insurers in the City of New York. It had an agent in the Washington, to whom Phinney, a resident in that state applied for a policy on his life. The application stated that it was made subject to the charter of the company and the laws of New York. A policy was issued which provided that, on its maturing, payment was to be made at the home office of the company in New York, and on its receipt, Phinney paid the first premium. The policy provided that he should pay a like premium for twenty years, if he should live so long, and that the policy should become void by nonpayment of the premium, with a forfeiture of previous payments. Phinney failed to make the next annual payment. Then he surrendered the policy to the local agent. He died without having made that payment or the next one which matured before his death. His widow was appointed his executrix. She presented to the company a claim for the amount of the insurance under the policy. It was rejected. This suit was thereupon brought. In its answer, the company set up that the contract was not to be taken as a contract under the laws of the New York, but under the laws of the Washington, and the company asked this instruction, which the court declined to give.

If you find from the evidence in this case that the said Guy C. Phinney stated to the representative of the defendant in the State of Washington that he could not pay the premium falling due September 24, 1891, and that he did not pay nor tender the same, and that he thereafter surrendered said policy to the defendant's representative, they mutually believing and understanding that the same was of no force or validity then or thereafter by reason of the nonpayment of the said premium, this would constitute an abandonment and rescission of this contract by both parties thereto, and would put an end to the same, and if you find the facts so to be, you must find a verdict for the defendant.

The jury trial resulted in a verdict and judgment for the plaintiff. This was taken in error to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which dismissed the writ of error on the ground that it had no jurisdiction by reason of a failure on the part of the plaintiff in error to file the writ in the office of the trial court. Held:

Page 328

(1) That the court of appeals had jurisdiction.

(2) That, without deciding it, the court would hold for the purposes of this case that the contract was made under the laws of the New York, and was governed by the laws of that state.

(3) That it is to be presumed that each party knew what the laws of New York were, and neither could be misled by any statement in respect thereto on the part of the other.

(4) That there is nothing in the New York statute (if controlling at all) to prevent the parties from dealing with that as with any other contract, and if they chose to abandon it, their action is conclusive.

After the company had once excepted to the refusal of an instruction which it had asked, and excepted to those which were given, it did not lose the benefit of such exceptions by a request that the court repeat the instructions excepted to in connection with certain answers made to questions propounded by the jury.

On September 22, 1890, Guy C. Phinney, a resident of the State of Washington, applied to the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York for a policy of insurance on his life for the sum of $100,000 payable to his executors, administrators, or assigns. This application was forwarded by the local agent at Seattle to the general agent of the company at San Francisco, and by him to the home office of the company in New York city. By reason of such application, a policy was issued to Phinney bearing date September 24, 1890, forwarded to the general agent at San Francisco, by him to the local agent at Seattle, and by the latter delivered to Phinney, who received it, and at the same time paid the first year's premium, amounting to $3,770. The policy provided that Phinney should pay the annual premium of $3,770 on September 24 of each year thereafter for twenty full years, provided he should live so long, and also

this policy shall become void by nonpayment of the premium; all payments previously made shall be forfeited to the company, except as hereinafter provided.

This last exception referred to certain provisions as to surrender value and readjustment of the amount of insurance on the payment of a certain number of payments, none of which is material to the question at issue in this case. Prior to September 24, 1891, notices were sent by both the general agent at San Francisco and the local agent at Seattle to Phinney that his premium would be due on September 24, 1891. Twice between the time

Page 329

of the receipt of this notice and the 24th of September, 1891, Phinney met Stinson, and requested him to accept his notes for the payment of the premium. This proposition was declined by Stinson, who declared at the time that he was unable to advance the premium for Phinney. Sometime after September 24, 1891 (the exact date being unknown, but, according to the testimony, from four to six weeks thereafter), Phinney again met Stinson, and stated that he was prepared to pay the premium, but was told that it could not be accepted unless a certificate of health was furnished. No certificate of health was ever furnished. Phinney stated that he could not obtain it, as he had been rejected by another company a few days before, nor was there ever any formal tender of the premium. In December, 1891, or January, 1892, Stinson requested Phinney to allow him to have the policy to use for canvassing purposes, and Phinney thereupon surrendered the policy to the agent, with the statement that, as the same had lapsed, he had no further use for it. Stinson received the policy, and never returned it to Phinney. On September 24, 1892, the premium falling due on that day was neither paid nor tendered by Phinney, nor did he after the surrender of the policy in December, 1891, or January, 1892, ever take any action in regard thereto, or pay, or offer to pay, any premium thereon. On September 12, 1893, Phinney died, leaving his last will and testament, wherein he nominated the plaintiff as executrix. Nothing was done by her under this policy until July, 1894, although Phinney held policies in two other companies at the time of his death, proofs in respect to which were presented by the executrix within one month after his death. At that time, she wrote to the insurance company a letter in which she stated as follows:

Seattle, Wash., July 11, 1894

The Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York:

Gentlemen: On September 24, 1890, my husband, Guy C. Phinney, took out a policy, No. 442,198, in your company in the sum of one hundred thousand dollars. He died in this city last September 12, 1893. Not being familiar with his affairs, and the policy [20 S.Ct. 907] being mislaid, I was not aware that he held such

Page 330

a policy until a few days ago, when the matter was brought to my attention.

In addition, it appears that, on the 16th day of September, 1893, in her application for probate of her husband's will, she filed an affidavit, which contained these statements:

Real estate, consisting of lands in said King County, of town lots in the City of Seattle, and of improved city property, the exact description of all which is at this time unknown to your petitioner, but which is entirely community estate, the value of which is about $300,000; that there is personal property of various kinds, all of the same being community property of the value of about $50,000; that the total estate of said deceased, including the community interest of your petitioner, who is the widow of the said deceased, does not exceed in value the sum of about $350,000.

In July, 1894 (evidently at the suggestion of counsel), she presented her claim under the policy, which was rejected, and thereupon this suit to recover thereon was brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Washington.

At the time the application was made and the policy issued, the following statute was in force in the State of New York:

Section one of chapter 341 of the laws of eighteen hundred and seventy-six, entitled "An Act Regulating the Forfeiture of Life Insurance Policies," is hereby amended so as to read as follows:

SEC. 1. No life insurance company doing business in the State of New York shall have power to declare forfeited or lapsed any policy hereafter issued or renewed by reason of nonpayment of any annual premium or interest, or any portion thereof, except as hereinafter provided. Whenever any premium or interest due upon any such policy shall remain unpaid when due, a written or printed notice stating the amount of such premium or interest due on such policy, the place where said premium or interest should be paid, and...

To continue reading