Lembke v. Unke

Decision Date27 October 1969
Docket NumberNo. 8486,8486
Citation171 N.W.2d 837
PartiesCaroline LEMBKE, and Jeanette Waxvik, Guardian ad litem of Kenneth Lembke and Gloria Lembke, Minors, Plaintiffs and Appellants in the District Court, Respondents in the Supreme Court, v. Clara UNKE et al., and Harry Carlson, as Special Guardian of Gloria Lembke, Kenneth Lembke, Jerry Lembke, Louise Lembke, Odean Lembke, Dennis Lembke, Rodney Lembke, Wayne Stegman, William Lembke, and Raymond Lembke, Minors, Defendants and Respondents in the District Court, Elsie Stegman, Walter Lembke, Leonard Lembke, and Clara Unke, Individually and as Executrix of the Will of Louis Lembke, Deceased, Appellants in the Suprmee Court.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court
Syllabus by the Court

1. The common law is not immutable but flexible, and by its own principles adapts itself to varying conditions.

2. In a contest over the validity of a will in which the testamentary capacity of the testator is involved, the heirs who contest the will, as well as the one nominated as executor, may waive the physicianpatient privilege insofar as the testimony of the physician relates to the mental capacity of the patient-testator.

3. Believing that the objective of N.D.C.C. § 31--01--06(3) is in no way thwarted by permitting those who stand in the place of or represent decedents to waive the privilege and that justice will be more apt to result from such waiver, because it will aid in reaching the truth as to the existence of testamentary capacity on the part of the patient, we hold that the trial court in the instant case was correct in permitting the attending physician to give his opinion concerning the mental capacity of the patient-testator.

4. As the trial court submitted to counsel the written instructions which it proposed to give to the jurors and asked that exceptions be noted, pursuant to N.D.R.Civ.P. 51(c), those parts of the instructions not excepted to are the settled law of the case.

5. Upon an appeal from a case tried to a jury, the Supreme Court's review of the facts is limited to a consideration of whether there is substantial evidence to sustain the verdict.

6. On an appeal from a judgment rendered on a verdict or from an order denying a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial, in determining the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain the verdict of the jury, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict.

7. On an appeal from a judgment rendered on a verdict or from an order denying a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony are questions of fact for the jury to determine.

Ringsak & Webb, Grafton, for appellants.

Nelson & Mack, Grand Forks, for respondents.

ERICKSTAD, Judge (On Reassignment).

Clara Unke (individually and as executrix of the will of Louis Lembke, deceased), Elsie Stegman, Walter Lembke, and Leonard Lembke, children of the first marriage of Louis Lembke, appeal from a judgment of the District Court of Pembina County dated January 13, 1967, and also from an order dated July 27, 1967, denying their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial.

On January 19, 1966, Clara Unke filed a in the County Court of Pembina County stating that Louis died on January 11, 1966, at Drayton, North Dakota, and praying the court to issue to her letters testamentary as executrix pursuant to the terms of his last will and testament dated January 6, 1966.

On February 14, 1966, Caroline Lembke, Louis's second wife, filed with the same court an objection to the admission of the instrument dated January 6, 1966, as Louis's last will and testament. Attached to the written objection was a photocopy of an instrument dated June 7, 1955, alleged to be Louis's last will and testament. The terms of the 1955 document were much more favorable to Caroline and the two children born the issue of her marriage to Louis than were the terms of the 1966 instrument.

After due hearing the county court rejected Caroline's objection and admitted the 1966 instrument as Louis's last will and testament.

The order of the county court dated February 6, 1966, admitting the 1966 document as Louis's last will and testament, was appealed to the District Court of Pembina County, where a trial de novo was demanded. The district court called a jury to hear the case; and at the completion of the trial, in giving its instructions, the court submitted to the jury a form of special verdict which required the jury to answer three questions. Those questions and the jury's answers follow:

(1) Is Exhibit #1 the valid Last Will and Testament of Louis Lembke, deceased, and entitled to probate as such? ANSWER No.

(Note. If your answer to the above Question No. 1 be 'yes,' it will not be necessary for the Jury to answer the remaining two question; but if your answer to the above Question No. 1 be 'no,' you will proceed to answer each of the remaining questions.)

(2) Did Louis Lembke, presently deceased, at the time of the making the Last Will and Testament, Exhibit #1, possess testamentary capacity? ANSWER No.

(3) Was the making of Exhibit #1, the purported Last Will and Testament Louis Lembke the result of undue influence then exercised upon him by others? ANSWER No.

Following the rendition of that verdict on November 18, 1966, the children and descendants of children of Louis's first marriage and the executrix of the contested will made a motion dated November 25, 1966, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial. It is from the order denying that motion, dated July 27, 1967, that the appeal is taken. Although the notice of appeal asserts that the appeal is also from the judgment, the appellants' briefs cover only the appeal from the order denying the motion.

We shall hereafter refer to the appellants in this court as the first family and to Caroline and the children of the second marriage as the second family.

The first family, in appealing to this court, have set forth seven specifications of error; but as they have chosen to group the specifications of error into five issues, we shall consider this appeal on the basis of the issues rather than on the specifications of error and shall deem all specifications of error not covered in the issues and not argued in the briefs, abandoned. See Regent Cooperative Equity Exchange v. Johnston's Fuel Liners, 122 N.W.2d 151 (N.D.1963), Syllabus 4.

The first issue is whether the court erred in permitting the testator's attending physician to give his opinion as to Louis's testamentary capacity. The appellants contend that in permitting the doctor to give his opinion concerning Louis's mental capacity to make a will, N.D.C.C. § 31--01--06(3) was violated. That subsection reads:

A physician or surgeon, without the consent of his patient, cannot be examined as to any information acquired in attending the patient or as to any communication made by the patient to him in the course of professional employment;

North Dakota Century Code.

That part of the transcript pertinent to this issue follows:

Q. Dr. Meredith, can you tell us whether or not in your opinion the late Mr. Louis Lembke had sufficient mental capacity to make a will, to know the disposition he was making of his property and the beneficiaries on the exact date that you received these two requests from Mrs. Clara Unke and Attorney William DePuy?

A. I have an opinion, yes.

Q. What is that opinion?

A. Well, I felt he was too cloudy on that day. He was a near terminal. I certainly did not feel he was in any condition to draw up a will or think about property. Poor man was dying.

The trial court, in permitting the physician to testify, quoted with approval the following passage:

In contests over the validity of a will, where both sides--the executor on the one hand and the heirs or next of kin on the other--claim under and not adversely to the decedent, the assumption should prevail that the decedent would desire that the validity of his will should be determined in the fullest light of the facts. Accordingly in this situation either the executor or the contestants may effectively waive the privilege without the concurrence of the other. (footnotes omitted)

C. McCormick, Law of Evidence § 105, at 217 (1954).

Applying that reasoning, the trial court rejected the rule applied in respect to that question in Auld v. Cathro, 20 N.D. 461, 128 N.W. 1025, 32 L.R.A., N.S., 71 (1910).

If it were the sole purpose of this court to decide today's controversies in light of its earlier decisions, much of our work could be taken over, after proper programming, by a computer, and in this instance our labor would end by applying the 1910 decision to the facts of this case. Such an application would require the granting of a new trial.

In Auld, in construing the predecessor of the present statute (which, for the purposes of this issue, was quite similar), this court said:

'* * * It provides that the physician shall not be compelled to disclose any information, etc., acquired in his confidential relations with his patient. For whose benefit was this provision intended? Clearly, for the benefit of the patient, whose interests, reputation, and sensibilities may be injured and grossly outraged by its disclosure. The fact that the physician acquired the information in order to prescribe for or treat the patient cannot affect the physician in the least degree unfavorably, nor that he should be compelled to disclose as a witness the information or knowledge thus acquired. The object of the section, therefore, was to protect the patient, to whom protection was so important, and not the physician, to whom it was quite unimportant, from the consequences of such disclosure, and shows that the provision that the physician shall not be...

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