Wilkinson v. Aetna Life Ins. Co.

Decision Date03 June 1909
Citation240 Ill. 205,88 N.E. 550
CourtIllinois Supreme Court


Appeal from Appellate Court, First District, on Appeal from Superior Court, Cook County; Ben M. Smith, Judge.

Action by Laura S. Wilkinson, executrix, against the AEtna Life Insurance Company. From a judgment of the Appellate Court affirming a judgment for plaintiff, defendant appeals. Affirmed.Flannery & McKinley, for appellant.

Samuel Adams and Carl R. Latham, for appellee.


This was an action of assumpsit commenced in the superior court of Cook county by the appellee, Laura S. Wilkinson, executrix of the will of John Wilkinson, deceased, against the appellant, the AEtna Life Insurance Company, upon two policies of accident insurance taken out in said insurance company by said John Wilkinson, one called a ‘regular form accident policy’ for $5,000, and the other called a ‘twentieth century combination accident policy’ for $10,000, which last policy contained a provision that in case injuries to the insured were sustained ‘in consequence of the burning of a building in which the insured shall be at the commencement of the fire, the amount to be paid shall be double the sum specified in the clause under which claim is made, subject to all the conditions of this policy.’ The declaration contained 10 special counts and the consolidated common counts in indebitatus assumpsit, to which were filed the general issue and four special pleas. A trial resulted in a verdict for $27,982.64, upon which the court rendered judgment, which judgment has been affirmed by the Appellate Court for the First District, and a further appeal has been prosecuted to this court.

The evidence of the plaintiff fairly tended to prove: That John Wilkinson died on the 9th day of September, 1904; that prior to the accident which caused his death he lived with his family at 482 and 484 La Salle avenue, in the city of Chicago;that he had a cottage at Fox Lake, where he and his family spent a part of each summer; that on the 7th day of September, 1904, his wife was at Fox Lake, from which place he had just returned to the city of Chicago; that he was fond of archery, and he made the archery targets which he used, in the loft of a brick barn which stood in the rear of the house in which he lived; that he was in good health and of a cheerful and hopeful disposition and was an inveterate smoker of cigars, especially when at work; that a housekeeper was employed at the La Salle avenue house, who prepared the meals for Mr. Wilkinson and one of his sons in the absence of his wife; that there were some wooden boxes and some boards in the barn loft used as a bench or table upon which to manufacture archery targets and a small amount of straw used in making said targets; that on the afternoon of September 7, 1904, after Wilkinson had eaten his midday meal, he went to the barn; that he subsequently returned to the house and talked with a boy who called to see him; that he then went back to the barn; that he then had in his mouth a cigar; that at 3:40 o'clock in the afternoon there was an alarm of fire; that the fire department responded and on arriving at the barn found the loft on fire; that the loft was reached by an inclosed stairway from the first story and by two doors from the alley in the rear of the barn, which opened in, and the barn loft was lighted by two windows on the east side of the barn, which fronted toward the house; that the firmen, on breaking into the barn loft through the doors and from the alley, found the straw, boxes, boards, and the interior of the loft on fire, and Wilkinson lying on the loft floor, unconscious; that they removed Wilkinson from the loft, who soon regained consciousness, and the fire was extinguished; that Wilkinson was badly burned upon his hands, arms, legs, and body and had inhaled flame and smoke, from the effect of which he died within two days. On the trial it was admitted that the policies were in force at the time Wilkinson was injured, that his injuries were effected by violent and external means, and that proper proof of his death had been made.

At the close of all the evidence the defendant made a motion for a directed verdict, which motion was denied, and the action of the court in that regard is the first error relied upon as a ground of reversal. It was admitted on the trial that John Wilkinson lost his life by injuries effected by violent and external means. The only question of fact therefore left open for proof was whether the injuries which caused his death were accidental or self-inflicted. The burden of proof was upon plaintiff to show they were accidental and not self-inflicted. Fidelity & Casualty Co. v. Weise, 182 Ill. 496, 55 N. E. 540. It was not necessary, however, that the plaintiff prove by an eye-witness that the injuries which caused the death of Wilkinson were accidental, but that fact might be established by circumstantial evidence, and we think it clear from the facts in proof that it cannot be said, as a matter of law, that the injuries which caused the death of Wilkinson were self-inflicted, but that the court properly submitted that question to the jury.

The defendant introduced no proof, and the evidence of the plaintiff tended to establish that the deceased was in good health prior to the time he was injured, that he was of a cheerful and hopeful disposition, that he was seen to go to the barn with a cigar in his mouth, that he was an inveterate smoker, especially when at work, that in a short time after he went to the barn the loft where he did his work was in flames, that on it being broken into by the firemen he was lying upon the floor in an unconscious condition, and that his body, when he was removed from the burning loft, was found to be badly burned. In addition to those facts the plaintiff, in support of the theory that Wilkinson's injuries were accidental and not self-inflicted, had the right to invoke the presumption that men in the condition in which the evidence showed Wilkinson to be just prior to his injury do not ordinarily take...

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