Georgia Life Ins. Co. v. McCranie

Decision Date25 June 1913
Docket Number4,730.
Citation78 S.E. 1115,12 Ga.App. 855
PartiesGEORGIA LIFE INS. CO. v. McCRANIE.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

Syllabus by the Court.

In the trial of an action upon a life insurance policy, where the defense is that the insured met his death by suicide, and the plaintiff contends that his self-destruction was accidental and the defendant introduces evidence that, shortly prior to his death, the insured stated that he intended to commit suicide, because his wife had been unfaithful to him, it is not erroneous to permit the plaintiff to introduce evidence of the good character of the wife for chastity. This evidence was admissible upon the theory that a husband with sound mind would not charge his wife with infidelity, when there was no evidence upon which such a charge could have been founded.

In the trial of an action upon a life insurance policy, where it is sought to recover damages and attorney's fees on account of "bad faith" of the company in refusing to pay the claim, it is erroneous to reject testimony of one of the general officers of the insurance company, showing that prior to the refusal to pay the loss he investigated the circumstances and in good faith reached the conclusion that the company was not liable; such testimony disclosing facts sufficient to show probable cause for refusing to pay the loss.

The evidence demanded a finding that the refusal of the defendant to pay the loss was not made in bad faith, and the verdict finding attorney's fees was contrary to the evidence.

Except as above indicated, no material error was committed, and the judgment will be affirmed upon the condition that the plaintiff will write off the sum recovered as attorney's fees.

(Additional Syllabus by Editorial Staff.)

In an action on a life insurance policy, letters of administration were not inadmissible because they described deceased as "Chas. H. McCranie" instead of ""Charlie H. McCranie," as he was described in the proof of death and the policy, where it was undisputed that the names referred to the same person.

Proof of death was not inadmissible, in an action on an insurance policy, because the policy was mistakenly described therein as for $400 instead of for $4,000, or because it was stated therein that the death was caused by carbolic acid taken by mistake for bay rum.

In an action on a life insurance policy, evidence that a brother of one witness was in litigation with plaintiff, though of slight evidential value, was admissible upon the question of the credibility of the witness.

Where in an action on a life insurance policy, a witness testified that he told certain persons that insured stated to him that he intended to commit suicide, evidence was admissible to show, not only that the witness had not repeated the statements as claimed, but that he had said he knew nothing about the case.

In an action on an insurance policy, error in permitting a witness to state his opinion that insured could not distinguish a bottle of carbolic acid from one containing bay rum or one containing chloroform is harmless, where the jury see the three bottles, and can reach their own conclusions in the matter.

In an action on a life insurance policy, it was not error to permit an agent of the insured to testify that insured took out the insurance in order to borrow money on it, and that the agent sought out the insured, where such evidence may have shed some light upon the issue of whether the insured committed suicide.

In an action on a life insurance policy, the presumption was that insured's death was accidental, and the burden was on the insurer to establish the defense that he committed suicide.

Error from City Court of Eastman; J. A. Neese, Judge.

Action by A. L. McCranie, administratrix, against the Georgia Life Insurance Company. Judgment for plaintiff, and defendant brings error. Affirmed on condition.

Walter M. Clements and Roberts & Smith, all of Eastman, W. L. & Warren Grice, of Hawkinsville, Wm. B. Birch, of Macon, and Jones & Chambers, of Atlanta, for plaintiff in error.

W. A. Wooten and Chas. W. Griffin, both of Eastman, for defendant in error.

POTTLE J.

The death of the insured resulted from taking carbolic acid. The policy was made payable to his estate, and suit was instituted by his wife as administratrix. The plaintiff claims that the death of the insured was accidental, and the defendant contends that his self-destruction was intentional. Death by suicide was not covered by the policy. The plaintiff recovered the amount of the policy, which was $4,000, besides interest, and 20 per centum of this amount as attorney's fees.

1. The defendant introduced witnesses who testified, in substance, that shortly before the death of the insured he threatened to commit suicide, giving as his reason his belief that his wife had been unfaithful to him and in one instance giving the names of men with whom he claimed she had sustained criminal relations. In several grounds of the motion for a new trial complaint is made that the court committed error in permitting the introduction of evidence as to the good character of the insured's wife and her reputation for chastity in the community in which she lived. It is argued that this testimony raised a false issue in the case; that the real question was whether the insured had said that his wife had been unfaithful to him, and not whether the charge was true. It is contended that the company did not undertake to establish the truth of the charge, but merely undertook to show that the husband had made the charge and had assigned this as a reason why he no longer desired to live.

The general rule is that in an action by a woman upon a policy of insurance upon the life of her husband her character is not involved, and evidence of her good character is not admissible. Nor is her character as a witness in her own behalf admissible, where no impeaching evidence has been introduced by the defendant. Travelers' Insurance Co. v. Sheppard, 85 Ga. 751, 12 S.E. 18. In the present case Mrs. McCranie testified as a witness, and an effort was made to impeach her by proof of contradictory statements made previously to the trial in reference to matters material to the main issue in the case. In such a case it is well settled that testimony of a witness may be supported by general good character. Civil Code, § 5881. Aside from this, we think the evidence was admissible for another reason. While at least two witnesses testified that the insured had made statements reflecting upon his wife's character, the proof is overwhelming that she was a chaste woman, and that her character in this respect was unassailable. The husband was dead. His lips were sealed. He could not be heard to deny the testimony of the witnesses who claimed that he had made these serious charges against his wife. It is true that the question of the truth or falsity of these charges was not in issue, but since there could be no direct proof that the husband had not impeached his wife's character for chastity she could only resort to indirect and circumstantial evidence to refute these charges. It is not reasonable to suppose that a man of sound mind would charge with unchastity a wife against whom no breath of suspicion had arisen in the community in which she had resided for many years. The jury might well reason that no husband would bring such a charge against such a wife. The wife might well say: "My husband did not and would not make such a serious reflection upon my character without at least some evidence upon which to base it, and if I can show that there was no such evidence, and that such a charge, if made, would have been wholly without foundation, such proof will justify the inference that no such reflection was in fact made upon my character by my husband." We recognize fully the force of the defendant's contention that the evidence was prejudicial to the company's defense, and was calculated to arouse in the minds of the jury a spirit of resentment against the company for undertaking to assert that the husband had assigned his wife's unfaithfulness as a reason for destroying his life; but this was one of the risks which the company took, and it cannot complain of the conclusion on this question reached by the jury, which was practically demanded by the evidence. If the testimony of the witness in reference to the reasons assigned by the insured for taking his life was untrue, the jury might also conclude that the testimony that the insured had threatened to take his life was equally false.

2. The statute of this state allows attorney's fees to be recovered against an insurance company in suits upon insurance policies, "provided it shall be made to appear to the jury trying the same that the refusal of the company to pay said loss was in bad faith." This statute has been held to be a constitutional and valid law. Harp v Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., 130 Ga. 726, 61 S.E. 704, 14 Ann.Cas. 299. Bad faith, as used in this statute, has been defined to mean "any frivolous or unfounded refusal in law or in fact to comply with the requisition of the policy holder to pay according to the terms of his contract and the conditions imposed by statute." Cotton States Life Ins. Co. v. Edwards, 74 Ga. 220 (4) . See, also, American Insurance Co. v. Bailey, 6 Ga.App. 424, 65 S.E. 160. Where unusual and apparently unnecessary delay in paying the claim is shown, the burden is upon the company to show that the refusal was made in good faith. Missouri Insurance Co. v. Lovelace, 1 Ga.App. 446, 466, 58 S.E. 93. In the present case, therefore, the burden was upon the company to make it appear that its...

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