SUPREME LODGE, K. P. OF THE WORLD v. BECK(1901)
[181 U.S. 49, 50] On April 5, 1895, a certificate of membership, in the amount of $3, 000, was issued by the plaintiff in error to Frank E. Beck, payable on his death to his widow, Lillian H. Beck. The application for membership contained this stipulation:
On April 13, 1897, an action was commenced in the district court of the first judicial district of the state of Montana, in and for the county of Lewis and Clark, by his widow, to recover $3,000, the amount of the insurance. This action was removed by the defendant to the circuit court of the United States for the district of Montana. The answer set up specifically that the insured died from 'self-destruction and suicide,' and, further, 'that prior to said Beck taking his own life said Beck was attempting to and did violate the criminal laws of the state of Montana.' In the circuit court a trial was had, which resulted in a verdict and judgment for plaintiff. The judgment was taken by the defendant to the United States circuit court of appeals for the ninth circuit, and by that court affirmed May 16, 1899, 36 C. C. A. 467, 94 Fed. Rep. 751, to reverse which judgment of affirmance this writ of error was sued out.
Mr. Carlos S. Hardy for plaintiff in error.
Mr. C. B. Nolan for defendant in error.
Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court:
The principal question discussed by counsel for plaintiff in error, and the important question in the case is whether the trial court erred in refusing a peremptory instruction to find a [181 U.S. 49, 52] verdict for the defendant. It is said that the testimony established the fact of suicide, and that there was no sufficient doubt in respect thereto to justify a submission of the question to a jury. We have recently had before us a case coming, like this, from the trial court, through the court of appeals (Patton v. Texas & P. R. Co. 179 U.S. 658 , ante, p. 275, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 275), in which the action of the trial court in directing a verdict was vigorously attacked as an invasion of the province of the jury to determine every question of fact. That case stands over against this, for there the trial court directed a verdict. Here it refused to direct one. In each case its action was approved by the court of appeals. In that case, although the question was doubtful, we sustained the rulings of the lower courts; and the considerations which then controlled us compel a like action in the present case. We said that a trial court had the right, under certain conditions, to direct a verdict one way or the other (citing several cases to that effect), but added:
Neither can it be said that death came 'in violation of or attempt to violate any criminal law.' Before he left home with the gun he said he was going hunting. While from his conduct he apparently changed his mind, and doubtless went to the house where his wife was stopping with the view of persuading or compelling her to return home, and may have intended violence against her if she refused, yet the death resulted, not as a consequence of any violation or attempt to violate the criminal law. In this respect the court charged the jury as follows:
This instruction correctly states the law. The death must in some way come as a consequence of the violation or attempted violation of the criminal law, and the stipulation does not apply when it is simply contemporaneous and in no manner connected with the alleged violation or attempt to violate. For instance, if the deceased had started with the avowed intent to to kill his wife, and while walking down the street a tree had fallen and killed him, the fact that he was starting upon an intentional violation of the law would not make this stipulation applicable, because the cause of his death would be entirely disconnected from the criminal act. So here, whatever may have been the general thought and purpose running in his mind as he went to the house where his wife was, his act in going into and stepping out of the water-closet was in no manner connected with or part of an attempt to carry out any criminal purpose, and at that time came the shot, intentional or accidental, which killed him.
These are the substantial matters presented in the record. There are one or two minor questions. For instance, when the undertaker was on the witness stand, the defendant produced a gun, and asked him to show the jury how the mark which he said he found on the face of the deceased could be caused, and the gun was used for that purpose. On cross-examination it appeared that his arm was not long enough to reach the trigger, and, therefore, to fire if off in the position in which he had placed it, he needed a pencil or something of that kind. Subsequently, the plaintiff introduced testimony tending to show the length of the arm of the deceased and the improbability of his being able to reach the trigger, with his face on the muzzle, as described by the undertaker, which testimony was objected to on the ground that the gun had not been identified as the one which had caused the death, but the objection was overruled and the testimony admitted. There was testimony subsequently offered by her as to its identity, but that testimony was, to say the least, not clear and satisfactory, so that it cannot be said [181 U.S. 49, 56] that the gun was fully identified as the one which caused his death. Still, we cannot think that this furnishes a sufficient ground for reversing the judgment. The defendant produced the gun, and while it cannot be said that the mere production carried with it a declaration that this was the gun which caused the death, yet it certainly suggested the fact; and if not so it ought to have offered testimony to that effect. It presented the gun for use and illustration before the jury, and there was no material error in permitting the plaintiff to use the same gun for the purposes of other illustration, especially when she followed that with testimony tending, although, perhaps, only slightly, to identify it.
Another matter is that: The plaintiff in her proofs of loss stated that the deceased came to his death by suicide, and to that effect was the verdict of the coroner's jury. With respect to this matter the court charged that there was no estoppel; that the plaintiff could explain the circumstances under which she signed the statement, and that while standing alone it would justify a verdict for the defendant, yet if explained, and the jury were satisfied that the death did not arise from suicide, she was not concluded by this declaration. We see no error in this ruling. None of the elements of estoppel enter into the declaration. The condition of the defendant was not changed by it, and if under a misapprehension of facts she made a statement which was not in fact true, she could explain the circumstances under which she made the statement and introduce testimony to establish the truth.
Some other matters are mentioned in the brief of plaintiff in error, but nothing that we deem of sufficient importance to deserve notice. We see no error in the judgment, and it is affirmed.