Insurance Company v. Tweed
74 U.S. 44 (1868)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Insurance Company v. Tweed, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 44 44 (1868)

Insurance Company v. Tweed

74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 44

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR

THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA

Syllabus

1. The act of March 3, 1865, 13 Statutes at Large, 501, which provides by its fourth section a mode by which parties who submit cases to the court without the intervention of a jury, may have the rulings of the court reviewed here, and also what may be reviewed in such cases, binds the federal courts sitting in Louisiana as elsewhere, and this Court cannot disregard it.

However, in a case where the counsel for both parties in this Court had agreed to certain parts of the opinion of the court below as containing the material facts of the case, and to treat them here as facts found by that court, this Court acted upon the agreement here as if it had been made in the court below.

2. Cotton in a warehouse was insured against fire, the policy containing an exception against fire which might happen "by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or any military or usurped power, explosion, earthquake, or hurricane." An explosion took place in another warehouse situated directly across a street which threw down the walls of the first warehouse, scattered combustible materials in the street, and resulted in an extensive conflagration embracing several squares of buildings, and among them the warehouse where the cotton was stored, which, with it, was wholly consumed. The fire was not communicated from the warehouse where the explosion took place directly to the warehouse where the cotton was, but came more immediately from a third building which was itself fired by the explosion. Wind was blowing (with what force did not appear) from this third building to the one in which the cotton was stored. But the whole fire was a continuous affair from the explosion and under full headway in about half an hour. Held that the insurers were not liable, the case not being one for the application of the maxim "causa proxima, non remota, spectatur."

Tweed brought suit in the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the Mutual Insurance Company on a policy of insurance against fire which covered

Page 74 U. S. 45

certain bales of cotton in a building in Mobile known as the Alabama Warehouse. The policy contained a proviso that the insurers should not be liable to make good any loss or damage by fire which might happen or take place "by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or any military or usurped power, explosion, earthquake, or hurricane."

During the time covered by the policy, an explosion took place in another building, the Marshall Warehouse, situated directly across a street, which threw down the walls of the Alabama Warehouse and scattered combustible materials in the street, and resulted in an extensive conflagration embracing several squares of buildings, among which the Alabama Warehouse, and the cotton stored in it were wholly destroyed.

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It is to be understood, however, that the fire was not communicated directly from the Marshall Warehouse, in which the explosion occurred, to the Alabama Warehouse, but that it came more immediately from a third building -- the Eagle Mill -- which was itself fired by the explosion. The wind (with what force did not appear) was blowing in a direction from the Eagle Mill to the Alabama Warehouse. But the whole fire was a continuous affair from the explosion, and under full headway in about half an hour.

Page 74 U. S. 46

Upon this state of facts the court below held that the principle "causa proxima, non remota, spectatur" applied, and that accordingly the fire which consumed this cotton did not "happen or take place by means of an explosion." It therefore gave judgment for the plaintiff below. The correctness of this view was the question now to be decided here on error.

The case was tried by the court below without a jury. There was no bill of exceptions nor any ruling on any proposition of law raised by the pleadings. The evidence seemed to have been copied into the transcript, but whether it was all the testimony, or how it came to be there, there was nothing to show. However, in the court's opinion (or, as it was styled, "reasons for judgment"), the learned judge below quoted considerable portions of the evidence in order to show the grounds for the conclusion which he had reached. And the counsel in this Court agreed to certain parts of the opinion so given as presenting a correct statement of the case.

Page 74 U. S. 50

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

There is in this case, as presented by the transcript, nothing which a writ of error can bring here for review tested by the rules of the common law.

The distinction between law and equity prevails in the federal courts sitting in Louisiana in the modes of proceeding, notwithstanding the Civil Code, which governs the practice as well as the rights of parties in the state courts. On account of the peculiarity in practice in that state, it has been decided in several cases coming from the state courts

Page 74 U. S. 51

of Louisiana to this Court by writ of error that we would regard the statements of fact found in the opinions of the court as part of the record where they were in themselves sufficient and otherwise unobjectionable. And perhaps this may in practice have been extended to cases from the federal courts of that district. But in regard to the latter, we are not now at liberty to do so. The Act of March 3, 1865, * by its fourth section, provides a clear and simple mode by which parties who submit cases to the court without the intervention of a jury may have the rulings of the court reviewed here, and also prescribes what may be reviewed in such cases. This statute, which is but a reproduction of the system in practice in many of the states, is as binding on the federal courts sitting in Louisiana as elsewhere, and we cannot disregard it.

We are asked in the present case to accept the opinion of the court below as a sufficient finding of the facts within the statute and within the general rule on this subject. But with no aid outside the record, we cannot do this. The opinion only recites some parts of the testimony by way of comment in support of the judgment, and is liable to the objection often referred to in this Court that it states the evidence, and not the facts as found from that evidence. Besides, it does not profess to be a statement of facts, but is very correctly called in the transcript "reasons for judgment."

But the counsel for both parties in this Court have agreed to certain parts of that opinion as containing the material facts of the case, and to treat them here as facts found by the court, and inasmuch as they could have made such an agreement in the court below, we have concluded to act upon it here as if it had been so made.

Upon an examination of the facts thus stated, and placing upon them that construction most favorable to the judgment of the court, we are of opinion that it cannot be sustained.

The only question to be decided in the case is whether

Page 74 U. S. 52

the fire which destroyed plaintiff's cotton happened or took place by means of the explosion, for if it did, the defendant is not liable by the express terms of the contract.

That the explosion was in some sense the cause of the fire is not denied, but it is claimed that its relation was too remote to bring the case within the exception of the policy. And we have had cited to us a general review of the doctrine of proximate and remote causes as it has arisen and been decided in the courts in a great variety of cases. It would be an unprofitable labor to enter into an examination of these cases. If we could deduce from them the best possible expression of the rule, it would remain after all to decide each case largely upon the special facts belonging to it, and often upon the very nicest discriminations.

One of the most valuable of the criteria furnished us by these authorities is to ascertain whether any new cause has intervened between the fact accomplished and the alleged cause. If a new force or power has intervened of itself sufficient to stand as the cause of the misfortune, the other must be considered as too remote.

In the present case, we think there is no such new cause. The explosion undoubtedly produced or set in operation the fire which burned the plaintiff's cotton. The fact that it was carried to the cotton by first burning another building supplies no new force or power which caused the burning. Nor can the accidental circumstance that the wind was blowing in a direction to favor the progress of the fire towards the warehouse be considered a new cause. That may have been the usual course of the breeze in that neighborhood. Its force may have been trifling. Its influence in producing the fire in the Alabama Warehouse was too slight to be substituted for the explosion as the cause of the fire.

But there are other causes of fire mentioned in the exempting clause, and they throw light on the intent of the parties in reference to this one. If the fire had taken place by means of invasion, riot, insurrection, or civil commotion, earthquake, or hurricane, and by either of these means the Marshall Warehouse had been first fired, and the fire had

Page 74 U. S. 53

extended, as we have shown it did, to the Alabama Warehouse, would the insurance company have been liable?

Could it be held as necessary to exemption that the persons engaged in riot or invasion must have actually placed the torch to the building insured, and that in such case if half the town had been burned down, the company would have been liable for all the buildings insured except the one first fired? Or if a hurricane or earthquake had started the fire, is the exemption limited in the same manner?

These propositions cannot be sustained, and in establishing a principle applicable to fire originating by explosion, we must find one which is equally applicable under like circumstances to the other causes embraced in the same clause.

Without commenting further, we are clearly of opinion that the explosion was the cause of the fire in this case within the meaning of the policy, and that the judgment of the circuit court must be

Reversed and a new trial granted.

* 13 Stat. at Large 501.

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