Whitfield v. Aetna Life Ins. Co.
205 U.S. 489 (1907)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Whitfield v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 205 U.S. 489 (1907)

Whitfield v. Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford

No. 28

Argued April 12, 1907

Decided April 22, 1907

205 U.S. 489

Syllabus

If an insurance company does business in a state, it must do so subject to such valid regulations as the state adopts.

A state may adopt such public policy as it deems best, provided it does not in so doing come into conflict with the federal Constitution, and, if constitutional, the legislative will must be respected even though the courts be of opinion that the statute is unwise.

The statute of Missouri that suicide, unless contemplated when the policy was applied for, shall be no defense to actions on policies of life insurance is a legitimate exercise of the power of the state, and a stipulation in a policy that the company shall only be liable for a portion of the amount in case of suicide, not contemplated when the policy was applied for, is void, and cannot be set up as a defense.

Whatever tends to diminish a plaintiff's cause of action or to defeat recovery in whole or in part amounts in law to a defense.

144 F. 356 reversed.

This is a suit upon an accident policy of insurance issued November 3, 1900, by the Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, upon the life of James Whitfield, a resident of Missouri. The policy specifies various kinds of injuries; also, the amount that will be paid by the company on account of such injuries respectively. It provides:

"If death results solely from such injuries within ninety days, the said company will pay the principal sum of $5,000 to Amanda M. S. Whitfield, his wife, if living; and, in event of the death of said beneficiary before the death of the insured, to the executors, administrators, or assigns of the insured."

The policy recites that it was issued and accepted by the assured, James Whitfield, subject to certain conditions, among which are these:

". . . 5. In event of death, loss of limb or sight, or disability due to injuries intentionally

Page 205 U. S. 490

inflicted upon the insured by any other person (except assaults committed for the sole purpose of burglary or robbery), whether such other person be sane or insane, or under the influence of intoxicants or not, or due to injuries received while fighting or in a riot, or due to injuries intentionally inflicted upon the insured by himself, or due to suicide, sane or insane, or due to the taking of poison, voluntarily or involuntarily, or the inhaling of any gas or vapor, or due to injuries received while under the influence of intoxicants or narcotics -- then, in all such cases referred to in this paragraph, the limit of this company's liability shall be one-tenth the amount otherwise payable under this policy, anything to the contrary in this policy notwithstanding. . . ."

"8. The maximum liability of the company hereunder in any policy year shall not exceed the principal sum hereby insured, and in no event will claim for weekly indemnity be valid if claim is also made for any of the stated amounts herein provided for specified injuries, based upon the same accident and resulting injuries."

The insured died April 7th, 1902, the plaintiff, his widow and the beneficiary of the policy, alleging in her petition that he died "from bodily injuries, effected through external, violent, and accidental means, and by a pistol shot." The petition also states that the company, after receiving proofs as to the death of the insured, offered to pay $500 as the full amount due by § 5 of the policy, but refused to pay more. The plaintiff asked a judgment for $5,000 with interest from the date of the death of the insured.

The company, in its answer, denied liability for the whole principal sum, and averred, among other things, that, by the terms of the policy,

"in the event death is caused by intentional injuries inflicted by the insured or any other person, whether such person be sane or insane, or while fighting or in a riot, or by suicide, sane or insane, or by poison, or by inhaling gas or vapor, or while under the influence of intoxicants or narcotics, then the amount to be paid shall be one-tenth of the principal sum, or $500; . . . that said James Whitfield died from

Page 205 U. S. 491

bodily injuries caused by a pistol shot intentionally fired by himself for the purpose thereby of taking his own life; that the cause of the death of said Whitfield was suicide."

It was not averred in the answer that the insured contemplated suicide when applying for a policy.

The plaintiff demurred to the answer. The demurrer was overruled, and the plaintiff filed a reply, admitting that the insured "died from bodily injuries caused by a pistol shot fired by himself, and the cause of his death was suicide," but averring that the shot was fired and the suicide committed at a time when the insured was "incapable of realizing or knowing, and when he did not realize or know, what he was doing or the consequences of his act."

The case -- a jury having been waived in writing -- was tried by the court upon an agreed statement of facts, one of which was that the insured died

"from bodily injuries caused by a pistol shot intentionally fired by himself for the purpose of thereby taking his own life; that the cause of the death of said Whitfield was suicide."

The circuit court held that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover $5,000, but only $500, and judgment for the latter amount was entered. 125 F. 269. That judgment was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals, 144 F. 356, and the case is here upon writ of certiorari.

Page 205 U. S. 494

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