Wilburn Boat Company v. Fireman Fund Insurance Company

Decision Date28 February 1955
Docket NumberNo. 7,7
Citation75 S.Ct. 368,99 L.Ed. 337,348 U.S. 310
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 349 U.S. 907, 75 S.Ct. 575.


Theodore G. Schirmeyer, Houston, Tex., Mark Martin, Dallas, Tex., for petitioners.

Mr. Edward B. Hayes, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case raises questions concerning the power of States to regulate the terms and conditions of marine insurance contracts.

Glenn, Frank and Henry Wilburn, merchants in Denison, Texas, bought a small houseboat to use for commercial carriage of passengers on nearby Lake Texoma, an artificial inland lake between Texas and Oklahoma. The respondent Firemen's Fund Insurance Company insured the boat against loss from fire and other perils. While moored on the lake the boat was destroyed by fire. Following respondent's refusal to pay for the loss, this suit was brought in a Texas state court by the Wilburns and by their wholly owned corporation, The Wilburn Boat Company to which the boat's legal title had been transferred. After removal of the case to the United States District Court because of diversity, respondent answered, admitting issuance of the policy, payment of premiums and destruction of the boat. Liability was denied, however, because of alleged breaches of printed policy terms or 'warranties,' providing that, without written consent of the company, the boat could not be sold, transferred, assigned, pledged, hired or chartered, and must be used solely for private pleasure purposes.1 The case was submitted on stipulated facts supplemented by oral testimony. Contending that the evidence showed the policy contract to have been made and delivered in Texas, petitioners urged that all questions concerning alleged policy breaches were controlled by Texas law. If Texas law does govern, the policy provision against pledging may be wholly invalid.2 Furthermore, no breach by the insured of the provisions of a fire insurance policy is a defense to any suit under Texas law unless the breach contributes to the loss.3 Without finding whether the policy had been made and delivered in Texas, the court refused to give that State's law any effect at all, holding that since a marine policy is a maritime contract, federal admiralty law—not state law—governed.4 The court went on to hold that there is an established admiralty rule which requires literal fulfillment of every policy warranty so that any breach bars recovery, even though a loss would have happened had the warranty been carried out to the letter. Finding that the Wilburns had breached policy provisions against transfer, pledge and use of the boat,5 the District Court entered judgment for the insurance company. Approving the District Court's actions in all respects, the Court of Appeals affirmed, saying that 'It is the settled doctrine that a marine contract of insurance is 'derived from', is 'governed by,' and is a 'part of' the general maritime law of the world.' 201 F.2d 833, 837. Importance of the questions involved prompted us to grant certiorari. 347 U.S. 950, 74 S.Ct. 674, 98 L.Ed. 1097.6

Since the insurance policy here sued on is a maritime contract the Admiralty Clause of the Constitution brings it within federal jurisdiction. New England Mutual Marine Insurance Co. v. Dunham, 11 Wall. 1, 20 L.Ed. 90. But it does not follow, as the courts below seemed to think, that every term in every maritime contract can only be controlled by some federally defined admiralty rule. In the field of maritime contracts7 as in that of maritime torts, 8 the National Government has left much regulatory power in the States. As later discussed in more detail, this state regulatory power, exercised with federal consent or acquiescence, has always been particularly broad in relation to insurance companies and the contracts they make.

Congress has not taken over the regulation of marine insurance contracts and has not dealt with the effect of marine insurance warranties at all; hence there is no possible question here of conflict between state law and any federal statute. But this does not answer the questions presented, since in the absence of controlling Acts of Congress this Court has fashioned a large part of the existing rules that govern admiralty. And States can no more override such judicial rules validly fashioned than they can override Acts of Congress. See, e.g., Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239, 63 S.Ct. 246, 87 L.Ed. 239. Consequently the crucial questions in this case narrow down to these: (1) Is there a judicially established federal admiralty rule governing these warranties? (2) If not, should we fashion one?

The only decision of the Court relied on by the Court of Appeals to support its holding that there is an established admiralty rule requiring strict fulfillment of marine insurance warranties was Imperial Fire Insurance Co. v. Coos County, 151 U.S. 452, 14 S.Ct. 379, 38 L.Ed. 231. There, because of a breach of warranty, an insurance company was relieved of liability for loss of a court-house by fire, and this Court said it was immaterial whether the breach contributed to the loss. But no question of marine insurance was remotely involved nor was there any reliance on a marine insurance rule. Writing its own 'general commercial law,' as was the custom in diversity cases prior to Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188, this Court in the Coos County case simply followed a general doctrine commonly applied to warranties in all types of insurance.9 A mere cursory examination of the cases, state and federal, will disclose that through the years this common-law doctrine, when accepted, has been treated not as an admiralty rule but as a general warranty rule applicable to many types of contracts including marine and other insurance.10 There are very few federal cases on marine insurance in which the strict breach of warranty rule has even been considered. And only two circuits appear to have thought of the rule as a part of the general admiralty law.11 On the contrary, other circuit court decisions, including the ones relied on in those few cases holding the rule to be one of federal admiralty, seem to indicate state law was followed in applying the rule12 or that the question was decided as one of 'general commercial law,' a uniform practice during the era of Swift v. Tyson, 16 Pet. 1, 10 L.Ed. 865.13 This Court did say in one marine insurance case that warranties 'must be strictly and literally performed.' Hazard's Administrator v. New England Marine Ins. Co., 8 Pet. 557, 580, 8 L.Ed. 1043. But there is not the slightest indication that this statement referred to a federal admiralty rule and the Court in fact expressly followed and applied Massachusetts law to decide another question in that very case.

Whatever the origin of the 'literal performance' rule may be, 14 we think it plain that it has not been judicially established as part of the body of federal admiralty law in this country. Therefore, the scope and validity of the policy provisions here involved and the consequences of breaching them can only be determined by state law15 unless we are now prepared to fashion controlling federal rules.

The whole judicial and legislative history of insurance regulation in the United States warns us against the judicial creation of admiralty rules to govern marine policy terms and warranties. The control of all types of insurance companies and contracts has been primarily a state function since the States came into being. In 1869, this Court held in Paul v. Virginia, 8 Wall. 168, 19 L.Ed. 357, that States possessed regulatory power over the insurance business and strongly indicated that the National Government did not have that power. Three years later, it was first authoritatively decided in New England Mutual Marine Insurance Co. v. Dunham, supra, that federal courts could exercise 'jurisdiction' over marine insurance contracts. In 1894, years after the Dunham holding, this Court applied the doctrine of Paul v. Virginia and held that States could regulate marine insurance the same as any other insurance. Hooper v. People of State of California, 155 U.S. 648, 15 S.Ct. 207, 39 L.Ed. 297. Later, the power of States to regulate marine insurance was reaffirmed in Nutting v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 183 U.S. 553, 22 S.Ct. 238, 46 L.Ed. 324. This constitutional doctrine carrying implications of exclusive state power to regulate all types of insurance contracts remained until 1944 when this Court decided United States v. South eastern Underwriters Ass'n, 322 U.S. 533, 64 S.Ct. 1162, 88 L.Ed. 1440. Thus it is clear that at least until 1944 this Court has always treated marine insurance contracts, like all others, as subject to state control.16 The vast amount of insurance litigation in state courts throughout our history also bears witness that until recently state legislatures and state courts have treated marine insurance as controlled by state law to the same extent as all other insurance.17 This is aptly illustrated by a Massachusetts case decided in 1893 which expressly held a generally worded statute of that State relating to warranties to be applicable to marine insurance companies equally with other insurance companies. Durkee v. India Mutual Ins. Co., 159 Mass. 514, 34 N.E. 1133.

Not only courts, but Congress, insurance companies, and those insured have all acted on the assumption that States can regulate marine insurance. In the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, Congress recognized that marine insurance companies were operating under state laws.18 Then, following a three-year study of marine insurance, Congress in 1922 passed a law regulating all types of insurance in the District of Columbia.19 This enactment generally referred to as the District of Columbia Model Marine Insurance...

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