American Life Ins Co v. Stewart

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation300 U.S. 203,57 S.Ct. 377,111 A.L.R. 1268,81 L.Ed. 605
Docket NumberNos. 440 and 441,s. 440 and 441
PartiesAMERICAN LIFE INS. CO. v. STEWART et al. (two cases)
Decision Date01 February 1937

300 U.S. 203
57 S.Ct. 377
81 L.Ed. 605


STEWART et al. (two cases).

Nos. 440 and 441.
Argued Jan. 15, 1937.
Decided Feb. 1, 1937.

Page 204

Messrs. Wm. C. Michaels and Charles M. Blackmar, both of Kansas City, Mo., and Earle W. Evans, of Wichita, Kan., for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 204-206 intentionally omitted]

Page 207

Mr. Charles G. Yankey, of Wichita, Kan., for respondents.

[Argument of Counsel from Pages 207-209 intentionally omitted]

Page 210

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

Page 211

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

Page 212

had an adequate remedy at law. 80 F.(2d) 600; 85 F.(2d) 791. We granted certiorari to settle an 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, 55 S.Ct. 310, 312, 79 L.Ed. 440; Adamos v. New York Life Ins. Co., 293 U.S. 386, 55 S.Ct. 315, 79 L.Ed. 444; Phoenix Mut. L. Insurance Co. v. Bailey, 13 Wall. 616, 20 L.Ed. 501; Cable v. United States Life Ins. Co., 191 U.S. 288, 306, 24 S.Ct. 74, 48 L.Ed. 188. 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 some one 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, 64 A.L.R. 956; New York Life Ins. Co. v. Hurt (C.C.A.) 35 F.(2d) 92, 95; Harnischfeger Sales Corp. v. National Life Ins. Co. (C.C.A.) 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 impressive uniformity.1 It

Page 213

has had acceptance in the state courts.2 It was recognized only recently in an opinion of this court, though the facts were not such as to call for its allowance. Enelow v. New York Life Ins. Co., supra, 293 U.S. 379, at page 384, 55 S.Ct. 310, 312, 79 L.Ed. 440.3

The argument is made, however, that the insurer, even if privileged to sue in equity, should not have gone there quite so quickly. Six months and ten...

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168 practice notes
  • Nunez v. Superior Oil Co., No. 76-3340
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • May 12, 1978 nature. Kerr-McGee Corp. v. Bokum Corp., 10 Cir. 1972, 453 F.2d 1067, 1071-1072; see also American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart, 1937, 300 U.S. 203, 57 S.Ct. 377, 8 L.Ed. 605; Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v. Gerald, 5 Cir. 1948, 170 F.2d 917; 5 Moore's Federal Practice, P 38.23 (2d ed. 1977); but......
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    • March 26, 2013 249, 57 S.Ct. 163. [489 B.R. 856] The Supreme Court reiterated the precepts enunciated in Landis in American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart, 300 U.S. 203, 57 S.Ct. 377, 81 L.Ed. 605 (1937), albeit in dicta. In that case, after an insured's death, an action was brought in equity to cancel an in......
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    ...'The remedy at law cannot be adequate if its adequacy depends upon the will of the opposing party.' " American Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart, 300 U.S. 203, 214-15, 57 S.Ct. 377, 379-80, 81 L.Ed. 605 (1937) (respectively quoting Davis v. Wakelee, 156 U.S. 680, 688, 15 S.Ct. 555, 558, 39 L.Ed. 578......
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