300 U.S. 203 (1937), 440, American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart

Docket Nº:No. 440
Citation:300 U.S. 203, 57 S.Ct. 377, 81 L.Ed. 605
Party Name:American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart
Case Date:February 01, 1937
Court:United States Supreme Court

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300 U.S. 203 (1937)

57 S.Ct. 377, 81 L.Ed. 605

American Life Ins. Co.



No. 440

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 1, 1937

Argued January 15, 1937




1. Fraud in the procurement of insurance is provable as a defense in an action at law upon the policy. P. 212.

2. A "contest," within the purview of a provision of a life insurance policy that it shall be incontestable after a period defined, has generally been held to mean a present contest in a court, not a notice of repudiation or of a contest to be waged thereafter. P. 212.

3. No action at law having been brought on the policy, an insurer whose attack upon the ground of fraud is endangered by the running of the time limited by the policy for contest may sue in equity for cancellation. P. 212.

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In the present cases, the period allowed for contest was two years from the date of the two policies. The assurance Company's suits for cancellation were brought when six months and ten days of that period had passed.

4. Where equity can give relief, plaintiff ought not to be compelled to speculate upon his chance of obtaining relief at law, or to incur the danger that witnesses may disappear and evidence be lost if he waits to be sued by his antagonist. P. 213.

5. A remedy at law does not exclude one in equity unless it is equally prompt and certain and in other ways efficient. P. 214.

6. A remedy at law is not adequate if its adequacy depends upon the will of the opposing party. P. 214.

7. Equitable jurisdiction existing at the filing of the bill is not destroyed by the subsequent availability of an adequate legal remedy. P. 215.

In these cases, the equity jurisdiction which attached on the filing of the bills by the Insurance Company was not lost when actions on the policies were brought in the same court; though the court, if requested, might have tried the law suits first.

80 F.2d 600, 85 id. 791, reversed.

Certiorari, 299 U.S. 536, to review the reversal of decrees for the cancellation and surrender of policies of life insurance.

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CARDOZO, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CARDOZO delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these cases, suits have been brought for the cancellation of policies of life insurance on the ground of fraud in their procurement, the policies providing that they shall cease to be contestable unless contest shall be begun within a stated time. The question to be determined is the existence, in the circumstances, of a remedy in equity.

On February 23, 1932, petitioner, a Colorado corporation, issued to Reese Smith Stewart, a citizen of Kansas, two policies of life insurance, each for $5,000, one payable to his son, who is a respondent in No. 440, and the other payable to his wife, who is a respondent in No. 441. Each policy contains a provision that it

shall be incontestable, except for nonpayment of the premium, after one year from its date of issue if the Insured be then living, otherwise after two years from its date of issue.

On May 31, 1932, three months and eight days after obtaining the insurance, the insured died, having made in his application fraudulent misstatements, or so the insurer charges, as to his health and other matters material to the risk. On September 3, 1932, the insurer brought suit to cancel the insurance, a separate suit for each policy, the executrix of the insured being joined as a defendant with the respective beneficiaries. The complaint in each suit refers in a paragraph numbered 8 to the provision that the policy shall be incontestable after the lapse of two years. In the same paragraph, it states in substance that the beneficiary may delay the commencement of the action at law till the time for contest

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has gone by, or, beginning such an action within the period, may afterwards dismiss it and then begin anew. The insurer asks the court to act while yet the barrier is down.

On September 26, 1932, the defendants moved in each suit to dismiss the bill for want of equity. On October 11, 1932, the beneficiaries began actions at law in the same court to recover the insurance. On October 29, the insurer filed its supplemental bills setting forth the pendency of the actions at law, and praying an injunction against their continued prosecution. On July 28, 1933, the District Court denied the motions to dismiss, without passing, however, on motions made by the insurer to enjoin the actions at law. On August 29, a stipulation was signed and filed in each case that "the suit in equity shall be tried" by the court

before said law action is tried, Provided, however, that the issues in said law action shall in the meantime be made up in order that said law issues thus joined shall stand ready for trial, with the understanding that said law issues, if any remain for trial, shall be tried as soon after the trial of the suit in equity as the court shall determine,

and this stipulation was approved by the court, and an order made accordingly. On October 10, 1933, the defendants in each of the equity suits filed their answers to the bills, denying the fraud, admitting the making of the "incontestability clause" as stated in paragraph 8, and, as to the other allegations of that paragraph, denying any knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief. The answers did not state that the remedy at law was adequate.

Upon the trial of the suits in equity, the District Court found the fraudulent representations charged in the complaints, and decreed the cancellation and surrender of the policies. There was an appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, where the decree was reversed, one judge dissenting, the court holding that the insurer

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had an adequate remedy at law. 80 F.2d 600; 85 F.2d 791. We granted certiorari to settle an [57 S.Ct. 379] important question, and one likely to recur, as to the scope of equitable remedies.

No doubt it is the rule, and one recently applied in decisions of this Court, that fraud in the procurement of insurance is provable as a defense in an action at law upon the policy, resort to equity being unnecessary to render that defense available. Enelow v. New York Life Ins. Co., 293 U.S. 379, 385; Adamos v. New York Life Ins. Co., 293 U.S. 386; Insurance Co. v. Bailey, 13 Wall. 616; Cable v. United States Life Ins. Co., 191 U.S. 288, 306. That being so, an insurer, though the victim of a fraud, may commonly stand aside and await the hour of attack. But this attitude of aloofness may at times be fraught with peril. If the policy is to become incontestable soon after the death of the insured, the insurer becomes helpless if he must wait for a move by someone else, who may prefer to remain motionless till the time for contest has gone by. A "contest" within the purview of such a contract has generally been held to mean a present contest in a court, not a notice of repudiation or of a contest to be waged thereafter. See, e.g., Killian v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 251 N.Y. 44, 48, 166 N.E. 798; New York Life Ins. Co. v. Hurt, 35 F.2d 92, 95; Harnischfeger Sales Corp. v. National Life Ins. Co., 72 F.2d 921, 922. Accordingly, an insurer who might otherwise be condemned to loss through the mere inaction of an adversary may assume the offensive by going into equity and there praying cancellation. This exception to the general rule has been allowed by the lower federal courts with...

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