96 U.S. 234 (1877)


Supreme Court of United States.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. H.G. Miller and Mr. Thomas G. Frost for the plaintiff in error.

Mr. S.P. McConnell for the defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The material question in this case is, whether, in view of the express provisions of the policy, the evidence introduced by the assured was relevant and competent to show that the company had authorized its agent to grant indulgence as to the time of paying the premium notes, and waive the forfeiture incurred by their non-payment at maturity; or to show that any valid extension had, in fact, been granted, or the forfeiture of the policy waived.

The written agreement of the parties, as embodied in the policy and the indorsement thereon, as well as in the notes and the receipt given therefor, was undoubtedly to the express purport that a failure to pay the notes at maturity would incur a forfeiture of the policy. It also contained an express declaration that the agents of the company were not authorized to make, alter, or abrogate contracts or waive forfeitures. And these terms, had the company so chosen, it could have insisted on. But a party always has the option to waive a condition or stipulation made in his own favor. The company was not bound to insist upon a forfeiture, though incurred, but might waive it. It was not bound to act upon the declaration that its agents had no power to make agreements or waive forfeitures; but might, at any time, at its option, give them such power. The declaration was only tantamount to a notice to the assured, which the company could waive and disregard at pleasure. In either case, both with regard to the forfeiture and to the powers of its agent, a waiver of the stipulation or notice would not be repugnant to the written agreement, because it would only be the exercise of an option which the agreement left in it. And whether it did exercise such option or not was a fact provable by parol evidence, as well as by writing, for the obvious reason that it could be done without writing.

That it did authorize its agents to take notes, instead of money, for premiums, is perfectly evident, from its constant practice of receiving such notes when taken by them. That it authorized them to grant indulgence on these notes, if the evidence is to be believed, is also apparent from like practice. It acquiesced in and ratified their acts in this behalf. For a long period, it allowed them to give an indulgence of ninety days; after that, of sixty; then of thirty days. It is in vain to contend that it gave them no authority to do this, when it constantly allowed them to exercise such authority, and always ratified their acts, notwithstanding the language of the written instruments.

We think, therefore, that there was no error committed by the court below in admitting evidence as to the practice of the company in allowing its agents to extend the time for payment of premiums and of notes given for premiums, as indicative of the power given to those agents; nor any error in submitting it to the jury, upon such evidence, to find whether the defendant had or had not authorized its agent to make such extensions; nor in submitting it to them to say whether, if such authority had been given, an extension was made in this case.

Much stress, however, is laid on the fact that the extension claimed to have been given in this case was not given, or applied for, until after the first note became due and the forfeiture had been actually incurred. But we do not deem this to be material. The evidence does not show that any distinction was made in granting extensions before or after the maturity of the notes. The material question is, whether the forfeiture was waived; and we see no reason why this may not be done as well by an agreement made for extending the note after its maturity, as by one made before. In either case, the legal effect of the indulgence is this: the company say to the insured, Pay your note by such a time, and your policy shall not be forfeited. If the insured agrees to do this, and does it, or tenders himself ready to do it, the forfeiture ought not to be exacted. In both cases, the parties mutually act upon the hypothesis of the continued existence of the policy. It is true, if the agreement be made before the note matures and before the forfeiture is incurred, it would be a fraud upon the assured to attempt to enforce the forfeiture, when, relying on the agreement, he permits the original day of payment to pass. On the other hand, if the agreement be made after the note matures, such agreement is itself a recognition, on the company's part, of the continued existence of the policy, and, consequently, of its election to waive the forfeiture. It is conceded that the acceptance of payment has this effect; and we do not see why an agreement to accept, and a tender of payment according to the agreement, should not have the same effect. Both are acts equally demonstrative of the election of the company to waive the forfeiture of the policy. Grant that the promise to extend the note is without consideration, and not binding on the company, — which is perhaps true as well when the promise is made before maturity as when it is made afterwards, — still it does not take from the company's act the legitimate effects of such act upon the forfeiture of the policy. Perhaps the note might be sued on in disregard of the extension; but if it could be, that would not annihilate the fact that the company elected to waive the forfeiture by entering into the transaction. If it should repudiate its agreement, it could not repudiate the waiver of the forfeiture, without at least giving to the assured reasonable notice to pay the money.

Forfeitures are not favored in the law. They are often the means of great oppression and injustice. And, where adequate compensation can be made, the law in many cases, and equity in all cases, discharges the forfeiture, upon such compensation being made. It is true, we held in Statham's Case (93 U.S. 24), that, in life insurance, time of payment is material, and cannot be extended by the courts against the assent of the company. But where such assent is given, the courts should be liberal in construing the transaction in favor of avoiding a forfeiture.

The case of leases is not without analogy to the present. It is familiar law, that, when a lease has become forfeited, any act of the landlord indicating a recognition of its continuance, such as distraining for rent, or accepting rent which accrued after the forfeiture, is deemed a waiver of the condition.

In Doe v. Meux (4 Barn. & Cress. 606) there was a general covenant to repair, and a special covenant to make specific repairs after three months' notice; and a condition of forfeiture for non-performance of covenants. The landlord gave notice to the tenant to make certain specific repairs within three months. This was held a waiver of the forfeiture already incurred under the general covenant. Justice Bailey said: "The landlord, in this case, had an option to proceed on either covenant; and, after giving notice to repair within three months, he might have brought an action against the defendant upon the former covenant, for not keeping the premises in repair. But that is very different from insisting upon the forfeiture... . I think that the notice amounted to a declaration that he would be satisfied if the premises were repaired within three months, and that he thereby precluded himself from bringing an ejectment before the expiration of that period."

In Doe v. Birch (1 Mee. & W. 402), there was a covenant on the part of the tenant to make certain improvements on the premises within three months, or that the lease should be void. He failed to make the improvements in the manner stipulated; and, after the expiration of the three months, the landlord's son, on his father's behalf, made a demand of a quarter's rent. But, it not appearing that the landlord knew of the tenant's failure with regard to the improvements, it was held that the son had not sufficient authority to waive the forfeiture. Otherwise, it seems, that the demand of the rent would have amounted to a waiver. Baron Parke referred to Green's Case (1 Croke, 3), where calling the party a tenant, in a receipt for bygone rent, was held to be sufficient evidence of a waiver, though the acceptance of that rent was not such. And he adds: "If it had been proved that the father had notice of the alterations, and he had still allowed the son to receive the rent, the forfeiture might have been waived. But that was not proved; and the question of waiver does not, therefore, distinctly arise in the case. If it had, the authorities cited show that this was a lease voidable at the election of the landlord. Then, I think that an absolute, unqualified demand of rent, by a person having sufficient authority, would have amounted to a waiver of the forfeiture, and it would have been like the case I cited from Croke's Reports."

In Ward v. Day (4 Best & Smith, 335), after a forfeiture of a license to gather minerals off of a manor had been incurred, the landlord entered into negotiations with the licensee and his son, to grant to the latter a renewal of the license when it should expire; and terms were agreed on, which the landlord afterwards refused to carry out. It was held, that, by entering into these negotiations, he waived the forfeiture of the original license. The negotiations assumed that the original license was to continue to its termination. The exaction of the forfeiture was in the landlord's election; and he evinced his election not to enforce it by entering into the negotiations. Justice Blackburn says: "Most of the cases in which the doctrine of election has been discussed have been cases of landlord and tenant under a regular lease, in which has been reserved a right of re-entry for a forfeiture; that is, an option to determine the lease for a forfeiture: but this doctrine is not, as Mr. Russell seems to think, confined to such cases. So far from that being so, the doctrine is but a branch of the general law, that, where a man has an election or option to enter into an estate vested in another, or to deprive another of some existing right, before he acts he must elect, once for all, whether he will do the act or not. He is allowed time to make up his mind; but when once he has determined that he will not consider the estate or lease, whichever it may be, void, he has not any further option to change his mind." And then the learned judge cites authorities, going back to the Year Books, to show that a determination of a man's election in such cases may be made by express words, or by act; and that if, by word or by act, he determines that the lease shall continue in existence, and communicates that determination to the other party, he has elected that the other shall go on as tenant.

These cases show the readiness with which courts seize hold of any circumstances that indicate an election or intent to waive a forfeiture. We think that the present case is within the reason of these authorities; and that the objection, that the note was already past due when the agreement to extend it was made, is not sufficient to prevent said agreement from operating as a waiver of the forfeiture.

Several minor points were raised by the defendant; but they are all either substantially embraced in the main points already considered, or are not of sufficient force to require special discussion.

We find no error in the record, and the judgment of the Circuit Court is




I dissent from the judgment given in this case. The insurance effected by the policy became forfeited by the non-payment ad diem of the premium note. The policy then ceased to be a binding contract. It was so expressly stipulated in the instrument. Admitting that the company could afterwards elect to treat the policy as still in force, or, in other words, could waive the forfeiture, the local agent could not, unless he was so authorized by his principals. The policy declared that agents should not have authority to make such waivers. And there is no evidence in this case that the company gave to the agent parol authority to waive a forfeiture after it had occurred. They had ratified his acts extending the time of payment of premium notes, when the extension was made before the notes fell due. But no practice of the company sanctioned any act of its agent done after a policy had expired, by which new life was given to a dead contract.


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