NEW YORK LIFE INSURANCE CO. v. FLETCHER


117 U.S. 519 (1886)

NEW YORK LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY v. FLETCHER.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided March 29, 1886.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Frederick N. Judson, with whom was Mr. John H. Overall, for plaintiff in error.

Mr. George D. Reynolds for defendant in error.


MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the court.

It is conceded that the statements and representations contained in the answers, as written, of the assured to the questions propounded to him in his application, respecting his past and present health, were material to the risk to be assumed by the company, and that the insurance was made upon the faith of them, and upon his agreement accompanying them that, if they were false in any respect, the policy to be issued upon them should be void. It is sought to meet and overcome the force of this conceded fact by proof that he never made the statements and representations to which his name is signed; that he truthfully answered those questions; that false answers written by an agent of the company were inserted in place of those actually given, and were forwarded with the application to the home office; and it is contended that, such proof being made, the plaintiff is not estopped from recovering. But on the assumption that the fact as to the answers was as stated, and that no further obligation rested upon the assured in connection with the policy, it is not easy to perceive how the company can be precluded from setting up their falsity, or how any rights upon the policy ever accrued to him. It is, of course, not necessary to argue that the agent had no authority from the company to falsify the answers, or that the assured could acquire no right by virtue of his falsified answers. Both he and the company were deceived by the fraudulent conduct of the agent. The assured was placed in the position of making false representations in order to secure a valuable contract which, upon a truthful report of his condition, could not have been obtained. By them the company was imposed upon and induced to enter into the contract. In such a case, assuming that both parties acted in good faith, justice would require that the contract be cancelled and the premiums returned. As the present action is not for such a cancellation, the only recovery which the plaintiff could properly have upon the facts he asserts, taken in connection with the limitation upon the powers of the agent, is for the amount of the premiums paid, and to that only would he be entitled by virtue of the statute of Missouri.

But the case as presented by the record is by no means as favorable to him as we have assumed. It was his duty to read the application he signed. He knew that upon it the policy would be issued, if issued at all. It would introduce great uncertainty in all business transactions, if a party making written proposals for a contract, with representations to induce its execution, should be allowed to show, after it had been obtained, that he did not know the contents of his proposals, and to enforce it, notwithstanding their falsity as to matters essential to its obligation and validity. Contracts could not be made, or business fairly conducted, if such a rule should prevail; and there is no reason why it should be applied merely to contracts of insurance. There is nothing in their nature which distinguishes them in this particular from others. But here the right is asserted to prove not only that the assured did not make the statements contained in his answers, but that he never read the application, and to recover upon a contract obtained by representations admitted to be false, just as though they were true. If he had read even the printed lines of his application, he would have seen that it stipulated that the rights of the company could in no respect be affected by his verbal statements, or by those of its agents, unless the same were reduced to writing and forwarded with his application to the home office. The company, like any other principal, could limit the authority of its agents, and thus bind all parties dealing with them with knowledge of the limitation. It must be presumed that he read the application, and was cognizant of the limitations therein expressed.

In Globe Insurance Co. v. Wolf, 95 U.S. 329, the policy declared that the agents of the company were not authorized to waive forfeitures, and this court held that effect must be given to the provision, except so far as the subsequent acts of the company permitted it to be disregarded.

In Insurance Co. v. Norton, 96 U.S. 240, the policy contained an express declaration that the agents of the company were not authorized to make, alter, or abrogate contracts, or waive forfeitures, and this court held that the company could have insisted upon those terms had it so chosen.

In Loehner v. Home Mutual Insurance Co., the Supreme Court of Missouri passed upon this point. 17 Missouri, 247, 256. The charter of that company provided that, if the assured failed to state in his application, which was made a part of the policy, any encumbrance that existed on the insured premises, his policy should be void. There was also endorsed on the policy a memorandum that the company would not be bound by any statement of the agent unless contained in the application. The answer to the action on the policy set up that the application did not truly state the encumbrances. A small encumbrance upon the premises was not stated, and on the trial evidence was offered that its existence was made known to the agent of the company at the time of the application, but that he refused to write it down, saying that the amount was too trifling. The evidence was excluded, and the Supreme Court sustained the ruling, holding that the objection that the encumbrance was not stated could not be obviated in that way. "Independently of the statute of the State," said the court, "which required the encumbrance to be expressed in the policy at the peril of its being void, there was a memorandum endorsed on it which made known that the company would be bound by no statement made to the agent not contained in the application. The facts being as represented, they could not give the plaintiffs a right of action on the policy in the teeth of the statute and against the terms of the contract. If the conduct of the agent was such as is alleged, he was guilty of a gross fraud, as is shown by his setting up this defence, which would avoid the policy and give a right of action for the recovery of the premium, but could not, for the reason given, entitle the plaintiff to an action on the policy."

The present case is very different from Insurance Co. v. Wilkinson, 13 Wall. 222, and from Insurance Co. v. Mahone, 21 Wall. 152. In neither of these cases was any limitation upon the power of the agent brought to the notice of the assured. Reference was made to the interested and officious zeal of insurance agents to procure contracts, and to the fact that parties who were induced to take out policies rarely knew anything concerning the company or its officers, but relied upon the agent who had persuaded them to effect insurance, "as the full and complete representative of the company in all that is said or done in making the contract," and the court held that the powers of the agent are primâ facie coextensive with the business entrusted to his care, and would not be narrowed by limitations not communicated to the person with whom he dealt. Where such agents, not limited in their authority, undertake to prepare applications and take down answers, they will be deemed as acting for the companies. In such cases it may well be held that the description of the risk, though nominally proceeding from the assured, should be regarded as the act of the company. Nothing in these views has any bearing upon the present case. Here the power of the agent was limited, and notice of such limitation given by being embodied in the application, which the assured was required to make and sign, and which, as we have stated, he must be presumed to have read. He is, therefore, bound by its statements.

The case of Ryan v. World Mutual Life Ins. Co., 41 Conn. 168, is in some respects similar to the one before us. There a policy obtained on the life of Patrick Ryan for the benefit of his wife declared that it was issued and accepted on the condition and agreement that the statements and declarations made in the application therefor, and on the faith of which it was issued, were in all respects true. The application was a part of the policy. It appeared that when the application was made, he was asked whether he had had any of the following diseases: bronchitis, consumption, spitting of blood, or any serious disease, and the answer, as written, was that he had had "none of them." To the enquiry whether, during the previous seven years, he had had any severe sickness or disease, or had employed or consulted any physician, the answer as written was "no." The authority of the agent was limited to receiving the application, forwarding it to the home office, receiving, countersigning, and delivering the policy, and collecting the premiums. The insured having died, action upon the policy was brought by his widow. On the trial she offered to prove, not that the answers were true, but that different answers were in fact given, both by her and him, and that the answers were wrongly written by the local agent of the company without the knowledge or consent of herself or her husband. The application was signed without being read. It was held that the company was not bound by the policy; that the power of the agent would not be extended to an act done by him in fraud of the company and for the benefit of the insured, especially where it was in the power of the assured by reasonable diligence, to defeat the fraudulent intent; that the signing of the application without reading it or hearing it read, was inexcusable negligence; and that a party is bound to know what he signs. After observing that the courts of the State had construed the powers of an insurance agent liberally, and held that, in writing the application and explaining interrogatories and the meaning of the terms used, he was to be regarded as the agent of the company, and, referring to the case of Insurance Company v. Wilkinson, in 13th Wallace, the court said: "But it cannot be supposed that these defendants intended to clothe this agent with authority to perpetrate a fraud upon themselves. That he deliberately intended to defraud them is manifest. He well knew that if correct answers were given no policy would issue. Prompted by some motive he sought to obtain a policy by means of false answers. His duty required him not only to write the answers truly as given by the applicant, but also to communicate to his principal any other fact material to the risk which might come to his knowledge from any other source. His conduct in this case was a gross violation of duty, in fraud of his principal, and in the interest of the other party. To hold the principal responsible for his acts, and assist in the consummation of the fraud, would be monstrous injustice. When an agent is apparently acting for his principal, but is really acting for himself or third persons, and against his principal, there is no agency in respect to that transaction, at least as between the agent himself, or the person for whom he is really acting, and the principal... . The fraud could not be perpetrated by the agent alone. The aid of the plaintiff or the insured, either as an accomplice or as an instrument, was essential. If she was an accomplice, then she participated in the fraud, and the case falls within the principle of Lewis v. The Phœnix Mutual Life Ins. Co., 39 Conn. 100. If she was an instrument she was so because of her own negligence, and that is equally a bar to her right to recover. She says that she and her husband signed the application without reading it and without its being read to them. That of itself was inexcusable negligence. The application contained her agreements and representations in an important contract. When she signed it she was bound to know what she signed. The law requires that the insured shall not only, in good faith, answer all the interrogatories correctly, but shall use reasonable diligence to see that the answers are correctly written. It is for his interest to do so, and the insurer has the right to presume that he will do it. He has it in his power to prevent this species of fraud and the insurer has not." 41 Conn. 171, 172. With these views we fully agree.

The instruction given to the jury in the case before us is, in effect, that the assured was bound by his application if it was not avoided for fraud, and that it was so avoided by reason of the false statements contained in it, and that, therefore, the plaintiff, as his representative, could recover. But if the application was avoided, it would seem to be a necessary consequence that the policy itself was also avoided, and his right limited to recovering the premiums paid. But such was not the conclusion of the court. It directed the jury that if the application was avoided for fraud, he could recover. It does not seem to have occurred to the court that had the answers been truthfully reported, and the fact of the assured having had diabetes within a recent period been thus disclosed, the insurance would in all probability have been refused. If the policy can stand with the application avoided, it must stand upon parol statements not communicated to the company. This, of course, cannot be seriously maintained in the face of its notice that only statements in writing forwarded to its officers would be considered. A curious result is the outcome of the instruction. If the agents committed no fraud the plaintiff cannot recover, for the answers reported are not true; but if they did commit the imputed fraud he may recover, although, upon the answers actually given, if truly reported, no policy would have issued. Such anomalous conclusions cannot be maintained.

There is another view of this case equally fatal to a recovery. Assuming that the answers of the assured were falsified, as alleged, the fact would be at once disclosed by the copy of the application, annexed to the policy, to which his attention was called. He would have discovered by inspection that a fraud had been perpetrated, not only upon himself but upon the company, and it would have been his duty to make the fact known to the company. He could not hold the policy without approving the action of the agents and thus becoming a participant in the fraud committed. The retention of the policy was an approval of the application and of its statements. The consequences of that approval cannot after his death be avoided.

The court charged the jury that if the assured had discovered the fraud before the policy was delivered and the first premium paid, it would have been his duty to decline to go any further with the transaction; but if he did not discover the fraud until after such delivery and payment, he was not called upon to take any steps for the cancellation of the contract. In other words, the jury were told that the assured might take to himself the benefit of the fraud without responsibility for it, if he did not discover it until after it was consummated — a doctrine without authority and wholly indefensible. No one can claim the benefit of an executory contract fraudulently obtained, after the discovery of the fraud, without approving and sanctioning it.

In American Ins. Co. v. Neiberger, 74 Missouri, 167, the assured agreed with the agent of the company that the policy to be issued should contain a clause giving him a right to cancel it at the end of the year. The policy issued contained no such clause; but he retained it several months before he returned it. The court, after observing that when the application does not attempt to set forth all the provisions which the policy to be issued must contain, and the agent represents that the policy will contain certain stipulations which are not unlawful, then the policy must contain them, or the assured would not be bound to accept it. "But in such case," said the court, "it will be the duty of the insured, when he receives the policy, promptly to examine the same, and, if it does not contain the stipulations agreed upon, to at once notify the company of such fact, and of his refusal to accept said policy. The policy in this case was issued on the 25th day of January, 1875, and was not rejected by the defendant until May 10, 1875. If the policy was received by the defendant soon after the date on which it purports to have been issued, we think he waited too long to elect whether he would receive the policy without the stipulation in regard to cancellation, or refuse to accept it, because it did not contain such stipulation. After such delay he will be deemed to have accepted the policy as issued."

The case of Richardson v. Maine Ins. Co., 46 Maine, 394, is a stronger one in illustration of this doctrine of acceptance. There an application for insurance was made to an agent of the company. He thereupon filled one containing a statement that there was no mortgage on the property to be insured, and without the knowledge of the applicant signed his name thereto. A policy was accordingly issued, which declared that it was made and accepted in reference to the application, and that the assured, by accepting it, covenanted that the application contained a just, full, and true statement of all the facts and circumstances in regard to the condition, situation, value, and risk of the property insured, and that if any fact or circumstance were not fairly represented, the policy should be void. Action having been brought upon the policy, the company denied its liability on the ground that the application had represented that there was no such mortgage, when in fact, one existed. The court held that the assured, by accepting the policy, was bound by its covenants, and that he ratified the application.

It is unnecessary to pursue the subject further. We are clear that the court below erred, both in refusing the instructions asked and in its charge to the jury in the particulars mentioned.

Its judgment must, therefore, be reversed, and the cause remanded for a new trial.


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