Phoenix Mut Life Ins Hartford, Conn v. Doster

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation106 U.S. 30,1 S.Ct. 18,27 L.Ed. 65
PartiesPHOENIX MUT. LIFE INS. Co. of HARTFORD, CONN., v. DOSTER and others
Decision Date23 October 1882

H. E. Barnard, for plaintiff in error.

Frank Doster and John W. Linn, for defendants in error.

HARLAN, J.

This is a writ of error from a judgment for the amount of a policy of insurance upon the life of Jackson Riddle, issued on the twentieth day of September, 1871, by the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut.

The policy purports to have been issued in consideration as well of the representations made in the application for insurance, as of the payment by the wife and children of the insured (the payees named in the policy) of the sum of $215, and the annual payment of a like amount on or before the twentieth day of September in every year during its continuance. It contains a stipulation that if the premium be not paid at the office of the company in Hartford, or to some agent of the company producing a receipt signed by the president or secretary, on or before the day of its maturity, then, in every such case, the company shall not be liable for any part of the sum insured, and the policy shall cease and determine, all previous payments being forfeited to the company. The policy is upon the half-note plan, and it is part of the contract that the dividends set apart to the insured be applied in the discharge, pro tanto, of annual premiums. The secretary of the company, in his evidence, states that under the half-note plan the insured is permitted to discharge one-half of the first four premiums by notes, (the interest thereon to be paid in advance,) and upon the fifth and subsequent payments to have his dividends, if any, applied in reduction of the premium. It was in proof that prior to the maturity of the respective premiums, payable on the twentieth days of September, 1872, 1873, and 1874, the company's general agent sent to the insured, at his residence in Monticello, Illinois, printed notices showing when the premium became due, the amount of cash to be paid, the interest on the notes given under the half-note plan, and the amount for which an additional note under that plan was required. Prior to the twentieth of September, 1875, when the fifth annual premium was due,—the notice to the insured stated the amount of dividends to be applied in reduction of that premium, the interest to be paid in advance upon the notes previously executed, and the sum to be paid in cash.

The amounts due in the years 1872, 1873, 1874, and 1875 were paid, but not until the expiration of several, in some instances 10 or more, days after the time fixed by the policy. They were received in each instance, so far as the record discloses, without objection upon the part of the company or its agents.

On the sixth day of October, 1876, the insured lost his life in a railroad collision, leaving unpaid the premium due on the twentieth day of September of that year. His residence and post-office, for more than a year prior to his death, has been at Oxford, Indiana. Of his removal to that place the general agent of the company at Chicago was distinctly informed, as the evidence tended to show, as early as October, 1875. The letter from that office acknowledging the receipt of the premium due on twentieth of September, 1875, (but not paid until about October 9th, of that year,) was addressed to the insured, at his new residence in Oxford, Indiana. On the fourth day of October, 1876,—14 days after the premium for that year was due,—there was sent from the office of the company's general agent at Chicago, addressed, by mistake, to the insured at Fowler, Indiana, a notice similar to that given in 1875. This notice, the evidence tended to show, was received from the post-office at Fowler, Indiana, (where the father never resided,) by a son of the insured, on the day the latter was killed, and a few hours only before his death. There was also proof that the insured, before leaving his home, at Oxford, Indiana, made arrangements to pay the amount required in that year as soon as the customary notice, showing the sum to be paid, was received. On the ninth day of October, 1876, the amount due was, in behalf of the payees, tendered to the company's general agent at Chicago. He declined to receive it, upon the ground that the policy lapsed by reason of the non-payment of the premium, at maturity, in the life-time of the insured.

Upon the part of the payees it is contended that the company waived strict compliance with the provision making the continuance of the policy dependent upon the payment of the annual premium on the day named therein; and that, in view of the settled course of business between the company and its agents on one side, and the insured on the other, it is estopped to rely upon the non-payment of the last premium, at the day, as working a forfeiture of the policy.

The facts and circumstances established by the testimony are sufficiently indicated in the charge of the court, to certain parts of which, to be presently examined, the company objected. It is enough to say that the testimony was ample to enable each party to go to the jury upon the substantial issues in the case. The motion, at the close of the plaintiff's evidence, for a peremptory instruction for the company was properly denied. It could not have been allowed without usurpation upon the part of the court of the functions of the jury. Where a cause fairly depends upon the effect or weight of testimony, it is one for the consideration and determination of the jury, under proper directions, as to the principles of law involved. It should never be withdrawn from them, unless the the testimony be of such a conclusive character as to compel the court, in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion, to set aside a verdict returned in opposition to it. 9 Pet. 299; 12 Pet. 5; 1 Black, 49; 14 Pet. 31; 13 Wall. 62; 93 U. S. 146.

We now proceed to an examination of those parts of the charge which were made the subject of exceptions by the company.

After saying that the policy, with the application, contained the agreement of the parties; that the clause providing for a forfeiture for non-payment of the premium at maturity, and declaring the want of authority in agents either to receive premiums, after the time fixed for their payment, or to waive forfeiture, constituted a part of the contract, binding upon both parties, unless waived or modified by the company, or by its agent thereunto authorized; also, that strict performance of the forfeiture provision could be waived by the company, either expressly or by implication, the court proceeded to lay down the rules by which the jury should be guided in determining whether there was such waiver. It said, in substance, that if the conduct of the company, in its dealings with the insured, and others similarly situated, had been such as to induce a belief on his part that so much of the contract as provides for a forfeiture, if the premium be not paid at the day, would not be enforced if payment were made within a reasonable period thereafter, the company ought not, in common justice, to be permitted to allege such forfeiture...

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