Dexter v. Hall
82 U.S. 9

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Dexter v. Hall, 82 U.S. 15 Wall. 9 9 (1872)

Dexter v. Hall

82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 9

Syllabus

1. The power of attorney of a lunatic, or of one non compos mentis is void.

2. When evidence has been given tending to show the insanity of a grantor and other evidence tending to show his sanity, a medical expert cannot be asked his opinion respecting that person's sanity or insanity, forming his opinion from the facts and symptoms detailed in the evidence.

3. Such a witness may be asked his opinion upon a case hypothetically stated, or upon a case where the facts are certain and found, but he will not be allowed to determine from the evidence what the facts are and to give his opinion upon them.

4. Under the California statutes of limitations, a plaintiff in ejectment who has established a legal title in himself, is presumed to have had actual possession of the land within five years next prior to the commencement of his suit unless an actual adverse possession by another is affirmatively proved.

Error to the Circuit Court for the District of California, in which court Mary Hall and her four children brought ejectment against Henry Dexter, both parties claiming under John Hall, who died intestate, the plaintiffs as his widow and children, the defendant as his grantee. The case was thus:

On the 30th of December, 1848, T. W. Leavenworth, then alcalde of San Francisco, granted to Hall, a lieutenant of our navy who happened to be in service off San Francisco, a piece of land, part of the pueblo lands situate within the corporate limits of the city as defined in 1851, east of Larkin and north of Johnson Street. The deed was duly recorded before April

Page 82 U. S. 10

3, 1850, in a proper book deposited in the office of the recorder of the County of San Francisco.

Hall afterwards was sent to a lunatic asylum near Philadelphia. While there, he executed, on the 27th of December, 1852, a power of attorney to one Harris, his brother-in-law, to sell this land. The power was acknowledged in the usual form before one Broadhead, a commissioner for California, resident in Philadelphia, who went to the asylum, saw Hall, read the power of attorney to him, asked him if he understood it, which he said he did, and that he desired the land sold for the benefit of his wife and children. Under this power, the land was conveyed to persons who afterwards conveyed to Dexter, the defendant.

Subsequently to the grant made by the Alcalde Leavenworth to Hall, the claim of San Francisco to her pueblo lands was submitted to the United states Board of Land Commissioners, and on the 3d of October, 1854, confirmed. An appeal was taken to the district court, and thence transferred to the circuit court, where, on the 18th of May, 1865, the claim of the city to the lands, including the lot now in controversy, was confirmed. And this decree of the circuit court was affirmed by this Court, the mandate having been sent down and filed February 4, 1867. On the 20th of June, 1855, a city ordinance, known as the Van Ness ordinance, was passed by which the city relinquished and granted all her right and claim to the lands within her corporate limits, as defined by the charter of 1851, to the parties in actual possession thereof, by themselves or tenants, on or before January 1, 1855, provided such possession was kept up until the introduction of the ordinance into the common councils, or, if interrupted by an intruder, had been, or might be recovered by legal process. The ordinance also declared that all persons who held title to lands within said charter limits, lying east of Larkin Street and northeast of Johnson Street, by virtue of any grant by any ayuntamiento, town council, or alcalde of the pueblo after the 7th of July, 1846, and before the incorporation of the city, which grant, or a material portion of which, was recorded in a proper book of

Page 82 U. S. 11

records, deposited in the office of the Recorder of the County of San Francisco on or before April 3d, 1850, should, for all purposes contemplated by the ordinance, be decreed to be the possessors of the land granted, although it might be in the actual occupancy of persons holding the same adverse to the grantees. As the lot granted to Hall was within this description, the ordinance assured to him whatever right and title the city then had, and confirmed, so far as the city could confirm it, the alcalde's grant.

Subsequently, on the 11th of March, 1858, the legislature of the state passed an act ratifying and confirming what the city councils had done by the Van Ness ordinance, and on the 1st of July, 1864, Congress enacted that all the right and title of the United States to the lands within the corporate limits of the City of San Francisco, as defined in the act incorporating the city, passed by the Legislature of California April 15, 1851, were thereby relinquished and granted to the city for the uses and purposes specified in the ordinance thereof, ratified by an act of the legislature of the state, approved on the 11th of March, 1858, excepting, however, from the relinquishment certain parcels not included in the grant to Hall.

Hall died in 1860 in the asylum, leaving his widow already mentioned, and four children; all minors at that time, the eldest being twenty years old, the next seventeen, the next fifteen, and the youngest nine.

In 1866, Mrs. Hall and these children (the youngest not yet being of age, and suing by a guardian), brought the ejectment mentioned as this suit.

At the time of the suit there were certain acts of California in force, as follows:

1st. An act of April 22, 1850, [Footnote 1] "defining the time for commencing civil actions." The 9th section of this act read thus:

"In every action for the recovery of real property or the possession thereof, the person establishing a legal title to the

Page 82 U. S. 12

premises shall be presumed to have been possessed thereof within the time prescribed by law, and the occupation of such premises by any other person shall be deemed to have been under and in subordination to the legal title unless it appear that such premises have been held and possessed adversely to such legal title, for five years before the commencement of such action."

2d. An Act of March 5, 1864, [Footnote 2] "to limit the time for the commencement of civil actions in certain cases." This act read as follows:

"In any action which shall be commenced more than one year after this act takes effect for the recovery of real property situated in the City and County of San Francisco or for the recovery of the possession thereof, none of the provisions of the act entitled &c., passed March 11, 1858 [the act already referred to, [Footnote 3] as of that date. -- REP.], and none of the provisions of either of the orders or ordinances therein recited or referred to, shall be deemed to give, confirm, or otherwise aid the right or title set up or claimed by any party unless such party, his ancestor, predecessor, or grantor shall have had actual possession of the land in dispute within five years next before the commencement of such action, the time already elapsed when this act takes effect to be included in the computation."

In this act there was no provision saving the rights of minors or persons otherwise under disabilities. However, an Act passed April 4, 1864, [Footnote 4] supplementary to the original act, did make an exception in favor of such persons, including persons "within the age of majority," and enacted that

"the time during which such inability shall have continued shall not be deemed any portion of the period of limitation, established in the said act, to which this is supplementary."

Intermediate between these acts was a third one, that of April 11, 1855, [Footnote 5] to amend an act entitled "An act defining

Page 82 U. S. 13

the time for commencing civil actions," passed April 22, 1850. This intermediate act provided that

"No action for the recovery of real property or for the recovery of the possession thereof shall be maintained unless it appear that the plaintiff, his ancestor, or grantor, was seized or possessed of the premises in question, within five years before the commencement of such action; provided however that an action may be maintained by a party claiming such real estate, or the possession thereof, under title derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments, or the authorities thereof, if such action be commenced within five years after final confirmation of such title by the United States or its legally constituted authorities."

The plaintiffs having shown Hall's paper title, including the Van Ness ordinance, and the statutes of California, and of the United States in aid thereof, having shown also the death of Hall, and their own heirship under the laws of California, rested.

The defendant then requested the court to charge the jury that upon these facts he was entitled to a verdict upon the following grounds:

"That the plaintiffs relied on the grant from Leavenworth, alcalde, upon the Van Ness ordinance, and the laws of California, and of the United States in aid thereof. That having commenced their action more than one year after the Act of California, approved March 5, 1864, and entitled 'An act to limit the time for the commencement of civil actions in certain cases,' took effect, they must show an actual possession of the premises in themselves or their ancestors, within five years next before the commencement of this action, which they had failed to do."

The court, however, refused so to charge, and the case, under exception to the refusal, proceeded.

In this further progress of it, certain depositions of persons resident at Philadelphia (in an asylum near which city it will be remembered that Hall had been confined), were read, some tending to show that on the 27th December, 1857 (the date of execution of the power of attorney under

Page 82 U. S. 14

which the land had been sold to the defendants or his grantors), Hall was sane, and others tending to show that he was insane. All these depositions being read the defendants called Dr. Elliot, a physician of San Francisco, who had been long in practice, and was still in practice, and asked him this question (he having read carefully all the testimony in the case relating to Hall's sanity and insanity):

"From the facts stated in these depositions and the symptoms stated, what, in your opinion, was the state of Hall's mind December 27, 1852, as to sanity or insanity?"

The plaintiffs objected to the witness expressing any opinion founded on the testimony adduced on both sides, and the court sustained the objection; permitting the witness, however, to give his opinion upon the testimony adduced by the plaintiffs. The witness then stated, under the defendant's exception to the ruling, that in his opinion as a medical man of large experience, from the facts and symptoms detailed by the plaintiffs' witnesses, Hall was capable of doing business and of executing a power of attorney before, at, and after December 27, 1852, and that such a case of insanity as his appeared to have been, rarely occurred without lucid intervals.

The defendant in rebuttal offered to prove that he had purchased the premises in good faith, for a full consideration, and without notice of the alleged insanity of Hall. But the court rejected the testimony.

The great questions in the case were:

1st. Of fact. Whether Hall was sane or insane, when he executed the power of attorney.

2d. Of law. If he was insane, whether the instrument was void or voidable only.

On this last point, the court below, having stated that the presumption of law, generally speaking, was in favor of sanity, and that whoever set up insanity was bound to prove it, said:

"If, at the time Hall executed the power in question, he was insane, and his insanity was general, the instrument was a nullity,

Page 82 U. S. 15

and no title could be transferred under it. In that case, the plaintiffs are entitled to a verdict. It matters not, if such were the case, what consideration may have been paid to the attorney, or with what good faith the parties may have purchased. The instrument in such case is no more to be regarded as the act of Hall than if he was dead at the time of its execution."

The jury found for the plaintiffs; thus finding that Hall was insane.

The case was now here on error, the charge, as just mentioned, as to the effect of insanity, if found, on the power of attorney, being the great question in the case; assignments of error being also made in regard to the question which the court allowed to be put to Dr. Elliot, the medical expert, and to other matters of evidence, and to the refusal of the court to direct the jury when the plaintiffs first rested, that the verdict should be for the defendants.

The case, on the great point of it -- the effect of an insanity, which, after the verdict of the jury, was to be regarded, of course, as admitted -- was interestingly argued and with a close examination of the authorities.

Page 82 U. S. 20

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