406 F.2d 325 (5th Cir. 1969), 25396, Lyle v. Bentley

Docket Nº:25396.
Citation:406 F.2d 325
Party Name:Mrs. Elizabeth McWilliams Seekatz LYLE, Appellant, v. Nena Farrar BENTLEY et al., Appellees.
Case Date:January 24, 1969
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 325

406 F.2d 325 (5th Cir. 1969)

Mrs. Elizabeth McWilliams Seekatz LYLE, Appellant,


Nena Farrar BENTLEY et al., Appellees.

No. 25396.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

January 24, 1969

Page 326

Coleman Gay, Joseph Latting, Austin, Tex., for appellant.

Andrew L. Jefferson, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., San Antonio, Tex., Robert A. Rowland, Austin, Tex., for appellees.

Before GOLDBERG and CLAYTON, [*] Circuit Judges, and NOEL, District judge.

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GOLDBERG, Circuit Judge:

This controversy involves the rightful beneficiary of a National Service Life

Insurance policy on the life of Harold R. Bentley issued pursuant to 38 U.S.C.A. § 701 et seq. Jurisdiction in the court below was predicated on 38 U.S.C.A. § 784.

The pertinent facts of this case begin in 1941 when the insurance policy in question was issued. Nena Bentley, Harold's wife, was then named as the principal beneficiary. Bentley divorced Nena in 1960. Two years later, on October 10, 1962, Bentley executed an insurance form which removed his divorced wife as principal beneficiary and named instead appellant herein, Elizabeth Seekatz Lyle. 1 On October 30, 1962, Bentley executed another document designating Mrs. Lyle as the principal beneficiary of his insurance policy. 2

Bentley died in December, 1964, and in 1965 Nena Bentley filed a claim with the Veterans Administration for payment of insurance benefits. The claim was disallowed by the Veterans Administration on the grounds that the proceeds belonged to Mrs. Lyle. Nena Bentley then filed this suit naming Elizabeth Lyle and the United States of America as defendants, and alleging that at the time the changes of beneficiary were made in Bentley's policy he was lacking in mental capacity or subject to the undue influence of Mrs. Lyle. The case was submitted to a jury with instructions to consider both mental incapacity and undue influence. The jury returned a general verdict for Nena Bentley.

Mrs. Lyle appeals to this court solely on the ground that there was insufficient evidence in the record to support a jury finding of undue influence. She does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence on the issue of mental incapacity, 3 but she invokes the rule that it is improper for a court to instruct on an issue of law about which there is no evidence. Jackson v. Southern Railway Co., 5 Cir. 1962, 317 F.2d 532, cert. denied, 375 U.S. 837, 84 S.Ct. 77, 11 L.Ed.2d 65. She argues that since this case was submitted to the jury on the issues of both mental incapacity and undue influence, and since the jury returned a general verdict, it is impossible to determine upon which theory the jury verdict was based. Mitchell v. John R. Cowley & Bro., Inc., 5 Cir. 1961, 292 F.2d 105, 109; Superior Combustion Ind. v. Schollman Bros. Co., 8 Cir. 1959, 271 F.2d 357. She maintains that under the existing circumstances, the very real possibility that the jury based its verdict on a finding of undue influence makes the verdict fatally vulnerable if in fact the evidence of undue influence was insufficient to justify submission of that issue to the jury.

We find appellant's contentions to be well founded. If the jury's verdict was in fact based on undue influence, which it could have been, and if the evidence to sustain such a finding was insufficient, then the verdict must not be allowed to stand. Under such circumstances it matters not how much evidence there is in the record of mental incapacity. Since the general verdict speaks affirmatively with respect to either or both of the issues submitted to the jury, we have no way of knowing upon what basis the jury's verdict was founded. Therefore, while the subjectives of the jury's deliberations are not for us to examine, if those deliberations as directed by the court's instructions permit a verdict to bs based on an issue

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not supported by sufficient evidence, the jury verdict must be set aside and a new trial held. Mosley v. Cia. Mar. Adra, S.A., 2 Cir. 1963, 314 F.2d 223, 229, cert. denied, 375 U.S. 835, 84 S.Ct. 52, 11 L.Ed.2d 65 and 375 U.S. 829, 84 S.Ct. 73, 11 L.Ed.2d 61.

With these considerations before us, we proceed to consider the sufficiency of the evidence in support of a possible jury verdict of undue influence. In evaluating this evidence, we are of course duty bound to accept all evidence in favor of the verdict as true and to give such evidence the benefit of all permissible inferences that would help to sustain the jury's decision. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Jackson, 8 Cir. 1965, 346 F.2d 484; Hughes v. Moran, Tex.Civ.App.1959, 325 S.W.2d 829 (writ. ref., n.r.e.).

We begin by noting the general contours of undue influence and the considerations and kinds of evidence which courts have considered probative in establishing its existence. Our point of departure is the Texas Supreme Court case of Long v. Long, 1939, 133 Tex. 96, 125 S.W.2d 1034, wherein the following helpful discussion appears:

'It is not possible to frame a definition of undue influence which embraces all forms and phases of the term. Every case is different from every other case, and must depend largely on its own facts and circumstances. Generally speaking, undue influence is such influence or dominion as exercised at the time, under the facts and circumstances of the case, which destroys the free agency of the testator, and substitutes in the place thereof the will of another...

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