Insurance Company v. Weide - 78 U.S. 438 (1870)
U.S. Supreme Court
Insurance Company v. Weide, 78 U.S. 11 Wall. 438 438 (1870)
Insurance Company v. Weide
78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 438
1. On a suit on a policy of insurance against loss of a stock of groceries in process of retail sale, by fire, it is competent, in the absence of trustworthy books and of specific evidence by persons other than the plaintiffs themselves, to show by witnesses in the town where the fire occurred, engaged in the same business with the plaintiffs, and whose annual sales were as large, that grocery merchants in that city for the six years prior to the fire had not carried or had on hand at any one time, more than one-fifth of their annual aggregate sales, and that this was the case on the day the fire occurred. In other words, to show by the general course of trade in that branch of business in the town that
the plaintiffs' loss could not have exceeded $24,000 if their sales during the year amounted to only $120,000.
2. But the witness can testify only to his personal experience on the subject. He cannot be asked what "the course of trade" was in regard to this particular business.
In October, 1866, the Home Insurance Company insured, for the term of one year, against fire, a stock of groceries and other merchandise owned by C. & J. Weide, and which were contained in a storehouse occupied by them in the City of St. Paul. In February, 1867, the storehouse and its contents were burnt, and this suit was brought to recover for the loss of the stock of goods. At the trial, the main question in issue was the extent of the loss. As most of the books were destroyed, and the defendants had introduced evidence tending to show that those which were not burned were not to be depended on, and afforded no data from which the value of the goods on hand at the date of the fire could be ascertained or the extent of loss determined, the case rested chiefly on the testimony of the plaintiffs. They swore that their sales during the year preceding the fire were about $120,000, and that the goods on hand at the time of the fire were worth, at their cost value, $65,000.
The defendants insisted, on the basis of the sales, that the loss was greatly overstated, and as one means of proving it offered to show by witnesses in St. Paul, engaged in the same business with the plaintiffs, and whose annual sales were as large as theirs, that grocery merchants in that city for the previous six years had not carried or had on hand at any one time more than one-fifth of their annual aggregate sales, and that this was the case on the day when the fire occurred. In other words, they wished to show by the general course of trade in that branch of business in St. Paul that the plaintiffs' loss could not have exceeded $24,000 if their sales during the year amounted to only $120,000.
The court refused to allow the evidence to go to the jury,
and the correctness of this ruling was the only point in the case which it was necessary here to consider. In the course of the trial, however, the defendant asked a witness this question:
"Supposing that the plaintiffs' sales were $120,000 for the year preceding the fire, as grocery merchants, what average amount did they carry or have on hand during such year according to the general course of business?"
And on objection made to it, some discussion took place below on the correctness of that question.