359 U.S. 437 (1959), 58, Dick v. New York Life Insurance Co.

Docket Nº:No. 58
Citation:359 U.S. 437, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935
Party Name:Dick v. New York Life Insurance Co.
Case Date:May 18, 1959
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 437

359 U.S. 437 (1959)

79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935

Dick

v.

New York Life Insurance Co.

No. 58

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1959

Argued January 12, 1959

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In this case, federal jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship and the issue was whether an insured died as a result of suicide or accident. He was alone when he met his death from two wounds from his double-barreled shotgun. In such circumstances, applicable state law presumes that death was accidental and places on the insurer the burden of proving that death resulted from suicide. So instructed, the jury found that death was accidental, and returned a verdict for the beneficiary. The evidence was entirely circumstantial, and could support such a verdict. The District Court denied the insurer's motions for a directed verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and a new trial, and entered judgment for the beneficiary. After reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals concluded that the gun could not have been fired without someone or something pulling or pushing the trigger, and that the evidence did not justify submitting the issue to the jury, and it reversed with directions to dismiss the complaint.

Held: the District Court properly submitted the issue to the jury, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed. Pp. 437-447.

252 F.2d 43, reversed.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, under the applicable principles hereinafter discussed, properly held that it was error to submit to a jury's determination whether an insured died as a result of suicide or accident.

Page 438

Petitioner is the beneficiary of two policies issued by respondent in 1944 and 1949 insuring the life of her now-deceased husband, William Dick. Each policy contained a clause which provided that double indemnity would be payable upon receipt of proof that the death of the insured "resulted directly, and independently of all other causes, from bodily injury effected solely through external violent and accidental means," but that the double indemnity would not be payable if the insured's death resulted from "self-destruction, whether sane or insane."

Mr. Dick met his death while alone in the silage shed of his farm. The death resulted from two wounds caused by the [79 S.Ct. 923] discharge of his shotgun.1 Petitioner filed proofs of death, but respondent rejected her claim for double indemnity payments on the ground that Mr. Dick had committed suicide. Petitioner then filed suit in the North Dakota courts. Her complaint set forth the policies in issue, the facts surrounding her husband's death, an allegation that the death was accidental, and a demand for payment. Respondent removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota on the grounds of diversity of citizenship and jurisdictional amount. It then filed an answer to the complaint in which it set up suicide as an affirmative defense to the demand for double indemnity payments. Respondent admitted liability for the face amounts of the policies ($7,500), and no issue is presented concerning those amounts.

Trial proceeded before the district judge and jury. The evidence showed that the Dicks, who had been happily married since 1926, lived on a farm near Lisbon, North

Page 439

Dakota, where they raised sheep, cattle, and field crops. Five of the six quarter sections of the farm were unmortgaged, and Mr. Dick, who was not known to have any financial problems, had nearly $1,000 in the bank. He was known as a "husky," "strong," "jolly" man who was seldom moody. "If he had anything on his chest, he would get it off and forget about it." Dick got along well with his neighbors, and was well liked in the community. He was 47 at the time of his death. He was five feet seven inches tall, weighed approximately 165 pounds, and was generally healthy. The coroner, who was also Dick's personal doctor, testified that Dick was a mature, muscular, physically able workman who, three weeks before his death, was bright and cheerful. About a year and a half before his death, Mr. Dick visited the doctor and complained that he felt tired and pepless. His condition was diagnosed as mild to moderate non-specific prostatitis, for which he received sulfa treatments and hormone shots. But the record is devoid of evidence that the condition was serious or particularly painful, or that Mr. Dick was especially concerned with it. The Dicks reared five children. One daughter still lived with them, and attended high school in nearby Elliott. Dick got along well with his whole family.

The evening before he died, the family returned from Elliott and ate ice cream and watched television together. Mr. Dick helped his daughter with a school problem in general science, explaining to her the intricacies of a transformer. He slept soundly that night. He intended to help his cousin -- a neighbor -- make sausage the following day. He arose the next morning, milked the cows, ate a hearty breakfast, and spoke with his wife about their plans for the day. He said nothing to indicate that he contemplated doing anything out of the ordinary. About 8:30 a.m., Mrs. Dick drove their daughter to school. Mr. Dick backed the car out of the garage for his wife and said

Page 440

goodbye in a normal way. He was then in the process of feeding milk to the pigs and silage to the cattle.

Mrs. Dick returned in about a half hour, and proceeded to work in the house. Later, when she thought it was time to leave for the cousin's house, she went to locate Mr. Dick. She walked to the barn and called for him, but there was no answer. She then went to the little 8 foot by 12 foot silage shed adjacent to the barn, and saw Mr. Dick lying on the floor. He was fully clothed for the zero weather Lisbon was then experiencing, and he wore bulky gloves and a heavy jacket which was fully zipped up. Near [79 S.Ct. 924] him lay his shotgun. A good part of his head appeared blown off, and she knew from his appearance that he was dead. She hurriedly returned to the house and called Mr. Dick's brother, who lived nearby. He came immediately, and, at Mrs. Dick's direction, went to the silage shed. There he saw Mr. Dick lying with his head to the northwest and his feet to the southeast of the shed. The body was along the south wall with the feet near the corner. Later, when he examined the shed more closely, he found a concentration of shotgun pellets high in the northwest corner of the shed and other pellets four to five feet from the floor in the southeast corner. He also noticed a sprinkle of frozen silage on the floor of the shed and on the steps leading to the door from the shed.

James Dick, the deceased's nephew, also responded to Mrs. Dick's call. He stated that, upon arriving at the Dick's house, he saw a tub newly filled with ground corn in the silage yard, and that normally his uncle fed silage with a topping of ground corn to the cattle. He also stated that the cattle were just then finishing the silage presumably laid out by Mr. Dick before his death.

At about 11 a.m., the sheriff arrived. Mr. Dick was still lying where he had died. The sheriff examined Mr. Dicks shotgun and found two discharged shells in its chamber. The gun was dry and clean, and there were no

Page 441

bloodstains on it or on the gloves which Dick was still wearing. The sheriff also noticed some of the shot patterns found by Dick's brother, and saw some brain tissue splattered on the southeast corner. He found a screwdriver lying on the floor about a foot from the gun. The Dicks use the screwdriver to open and close the door to the silage shed, because the doorknob was missing.

Soon thereafter, the coroner arrived. He testified that Mr. Dick's body contained a shotgun wound on the left side and one on the head. The body wound was mortal, but not immediately fatal. It consisted of a gouged out wound on the left lateral chest wall which removed skin, fat, rib muscles and portions of rib from the body. In addition, other ribs were fractured, and Dick's left lung was collapsed. In the coroner's opinion, it was the type of wound which would have had to result in immense pain, although it probably would not have made it impossible for Dick again to discharge the gun. The wound to the head caused immediate death. According to the testimony of the sheriff and a member of the Fargo police department, both wounds were received from the front. In the sheriff's opinion, the chest wound was received from an upward shot into Dick's body, but this testimony conflicted with another statement of the sheriff indicating that the wound was received from a downward shot.

It was clear from the testimony that Mr. Dick was an experienced hunter. Petitioner testified that he kept the shotgun in the barn because of attacks on his sheep by vicious dogs during the preceding year. A number of the sheep had been killed in this manner. In addition, Dick had mentioned seeing foxes near the barn. Mrs. Dick testified that, when her husband went hunting, he sometimes borrowed his father's gun because he didn't trust his own. She was with him once when the gun wouldn't fire, and had been told that occasionally it fired accidentally. In addition, Dick's brother testified that, while hunting

Page 442

with Dick, he heard a shot at an unexpected time which Dick explained as an accidental discharge that occurred "once in a while." The gun was over 26 years old.

The sheriff testified that, after the death, he tested Dick's gun by cocking and dropping it a number of times.2 The triggers did not release on [79 S.Ct. 925] any of these occasions. The sheriff also explained that the gun had a safety, and could not discharge with the safety on....

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182 practice notes
  • 163 B.R. 497 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Mich. 1994), 93-2070, In re Little
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Sixth Circuit
    • February 3, 1994
    ...here. The question of who bears the burden of proof is generally considered to be substantive. See, e.g., Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 446, 79 S.Ct. 921, 927, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959); Putnam Resources v. Pateman, 958 F.2d 448, 465 (1st Cir.1992) ("[B]urdens of proof [are]......
  • 268 F.2d 793 (4th Cir. 1959), 7786, Manaia v. Potomac Elec. Power Co.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • June 18, 1959
    ...to the objective disposition of such questions as this. See the opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter in Dick v. New York Life Insurance Co., 359 U.S. 437, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935; Smith v. Reinauer Oil Transport, Inc., 1 Cir., 256 F.2d 646. Affirmed. Notes: [1] 163 F.Supp. 671. [2] One of......
  • 368 F.2d 713 (2nd Cir. 1966), 7, Mull v. Ford Motor Co.
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    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
    • November 9, 1966
    ...controlling in diversity cases, see Mercer v. Theriot, 377 U.S. 152, 84 S.Ct. 1157, 12 L.Ed.2d 206 (1964); Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 444-445, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959); as has this Circuit on recent occasions, see, hooks v. New York Central R.R., 327 F.2d 259, 2......
  • 391 F.2d 35 (8th Cir. 1968), 18800, Grand Island Grain Co. v. Roush Mobile Home Sales, Inc.
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    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
    • March 19, 1968
    ...state or federal law prevails on the issue of sufficiency of the evidence remains an open question. Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 444-445, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959). In our cases arising from Nebraska we have concluded that federal and Nebraska standards are substan......
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175 cases
  • 163 B.R. 497 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Mich. 1994), 93-2070, In re Little
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Sixth Circuit
    • February 3, 1994
    ...here. The question of who bears the burden of proof is generally considered to be substantive. See, e.g., Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 446, 79 S.Ct. 921, 927, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959); Putnam Resources v. Pateman, 958 F.2d 448, 465 (1st Cir.1992) ("[B]urdens of proof [are]......
  • 268 F.2d 793 (4th Cir. 1959), 7786, Manaia v. Potomac Elec. Power Co.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • June 18, 1959
    ...to the objective disposition of such questions as this. See the opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter in Dick v. New York Life Insurance Co., 359 U.S. 437, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935; Smith v. Reinauer Oil Transport, Inc., 1 Cir., 256 F.2d 646. Affirmed. Notes: [1] 163 F.Supp. 671. [2] One of......
  • 368 F.2d 713 (2nd Cir. 1966), 7, Mull v. Ford Motor Co.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
    • November 9, 1966
    ...controlling in diversity cases, see Mercer v. Theriot, 377 U.S. 152, 84 S.Ct. 1157, 12 L.Ed.2d 206 (1964); Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 444-445, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959); as has this Circuit on recent occasions, see, hooks v. New York Central R.R., 327 F.2d 259, 2......
  • 391 F.2d 35 (8th Cir. 1968), 18800, Grand Island Grain Co. v. Roush Mobile Home Sales, Inc.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
    • March 19, 1968
    ...state or federal law prevails on the issue of sufficiency of the evidence remains an open question. Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 444-445, 79 S.Ct. 921, 3 L.Ed.2d 935 (1959). In our cases arising from Nebraska we have concluded that federal and Nebraska standards are substan......
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  • 10th Circuit Highlights Difference Between Delaware And Nevada Exculpatory Statutes
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
    • June 22, 2016
    ...to the plaintiff. Because allocation of the burden of persuasion is a matter of substantive law, see Dick v. New York Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 446 (1959) (“Under the Erie rule, presumptions (and their effects) and burden of proof are ‘substantive’ . . . .” (footnote omitted)), we apply ......
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    ...Philadelphia National Bank articulates a per se rule as opposed to a rebuttable presumption). (72.) See, e.g., Dick v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 443 (1959) ("Proof of coverage and of death by gunshot wound shifts the burden to the insurer to establish that the death of the insu......
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    ...(60) Judiciary Act of 1925, Pub. L. No. 68-415, 43 Stat. 936. (61) Linzer, supra note 24, at 1240-41. (62) Dick v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 359 U.S. 437, 459 (1959) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). (63) See, e.g., Procedure in Federal Courts: Hearing on S. 2060 Before a Subcomm. of the S. Comm. on......
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