Insurance Company v. Seaver
86 U.S. 531

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Insurance Company v. Seaver, 86 U.S. 19 Wall. 531 531 (1873)

Insurance Company v. Seaver

86 U.S. (19 Wall.) 531

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF VERMONT

Syllabus

1. Where two persons were driving sulkies in competition alongside of each other at a horse race for money -- which sort of race was made illegal by statute -- and on a collision ensuing, one jumped to the ground from his sulky, and was clear from the sulky, harness, and reins, on his feet and uninjured, and instantly spoke to his horse to stop, and then started forward to get hold of the reins, which were hanging across the axletree, and when ahold of, or attempting to get hold of them, was killed by getting tangled in them, falling down and being dragged against a

Page 86 U. S. 532

stone, held, on a suit upon a policy of insurance on the life of the person killed which made it a condition of paying the sum assured that the contract should not extend to a case of death caused by "dueling, fighting, or other breach of the law on the part of the assured, or by his willfully exposing himself to any unnecessary danger or peril" -- that this death was within the condition, and that the leap from the sulky and securing the reins, and the subsequent fall and injury, were so close and immediate in their relation to the racing, and all so manifestly part of one continuous transaction, that it could not be said that there was a new and controlling influence to which the disaster should be attributed.

2. On a suit for the insurance money on such a policy as the one above mentioned, and where the language of the condition was the matter referred to by the court, it was error to tell the jury that they were to consider

"how ordinary people in the part of the country where the insured reside, in view of the state of things then existing -- the frequency of such races, and the way in which such matches are usually regulated -- would naturally understand such language, whether as precluding such driving or not."

Mrs. Elizabeth Seaver sued the Travelers' Insurance Company of Hartford on a policy of insurance, which insured her against loss of life of her husband -- described in the policy as a livery stable keeper -- caused by any accident within the meaning of the policy and conditions thereto annexed. Among these conditions was one that the insurance should

"not extend to death or injury caused by dueling or fighting, or other breach of the law on the part of the assured, . . . or by his willfully exposing himself to any unnecessary danger or peril."

Seaver, the husband, was killed suddenly at Morrisville, Vermont, immediately after jumping from a sulky, in which he was driving in a match race, on the event of which a considerable sum of money was wagered. The defense of the company, as the case was submitted to the jury, was that his death was caused by a breach of the law and by his willfully exposing himself to unnecessary danger.

The plaintiff's evidence, as the bill of exceptions showed, tended to prove that at the race, Seaver was driving a mare and sulky; that one Gilmore was driving a horse and sulky in competition alongside; that the track was "in form like the link of a chain," in other words was an oval track; and

Page 86 U. S. 533

that soon after leaving the judge's stand, Seaver having the inside track, and his mare and Gilmore's horse being nearly abreast, Seaver's mare broke and fell back, and that Gilmore's horse got a little ahead; that Gilmore thereupon reined in towards the inside track, apparently to get the inside track -- his team being then about half its length ahead of Seaver's mare -- that Seaver's mare at that moment regained her speed and, gaining on the other horse, the sulkies came into collision. That the wheel of Seaver passed over the near wheel of Gilmore, and that Seaver instantly jumped from his sulky, and struck upon the grass ground off the track, upon his feet, uninjured, some two or three feet from his sulky, and entirely free from it; that if he had remained standing where he struck, he would have received no injury; that he instantly spoke to his mare, and that the mare slackened her speed, and that Seaver started to catch her, and with that purpose ran a distance of some twenty feet by her side, trying to get hold of the reins to stop her; that the reins were hanging loosely across the axletree of the carriage; that when Seaver ran the distance as aforesaid, and while thus running with one hand either ahold of or grasping for the reins, the mare turned in upon the grass ground and towards Seaver, throwing him down, when in some way he became entangled in the reins, and was dragged along a few feet until his head struck a stone with great force; that Seaver was immediately taken up insensible and carried into the house, and that he died the next morning from the injury.

The plaintiff's evidence further tended to show that by the rules of the trotting course, Gilmore had not the right to attempt to take the inside track until he had passed Seaver a distance equal to the whole length of Seaver's team.

The defendant gave in evidence section nine of chapter cxix of the General Statutes of Vermont, which was as follows:

"All racing, running, trotting, or pacing of any horse or horse kind for any bet or wager of money or other valuable

Page 86 U. S. 534

thing, or for any purse or stake made, is hereby declared a misdemeanor, and the parties, contrivers, aiders and abettors thereof shall pay a fine not exceeding $500."

The court charged as follows:

"That for the purposes of this trial, the jury were to regard the trotting race in which the insured was engaged when he jumped from his sulky and was killed as a breach of the law within the meaning of the conditions of the policy."

"That the jury were therefore to inquire whether the death of the insured was occasioned by the breach of the law; that this was a question for the jury."

"That if the jury should find that Seaver was killed by the race itself, by an ordinary accident of the race, so that the race was the proximate cause of the death, the plaintiff could not recover; but if the jury should find that Gilmore turned his horse intentionally and tortiously, with the purpose of winning the race at all hazards, whether he should crowd Seaver from the track or not, then that the conduct of Gilmore and not the race would be the proximate cause of the death, and the plaintiff would be entitled to recover."

"That the plaintiff's evidence showed that Gilmore, turning in as he did, was in violation of the rules of the race; that a man was usually to be taken as intending the natural and necessary consequences of his own acts. And that if the jury were of opinion that Gilmore drove as he did tortiously and with the intention of winning the race in any event, even though in his so doing he should crowd Seaver from the track and upset him, and that such driving caused the death of Seaver, then the jury should find for the plaintiff."

"That if the death of the insured was caused by the willful exposure of himself to an unnecessary danger or peril within the meaning of the other clause in the policy relied on by the defendants, the plaintiff would not be entitled to recover."

"That upon this part of the case, it was to be considered, however, that the language of this clause must be taken most strongly against the defendant, because used in their policy, and for the purpose of inducing parties to take policies;"

"And that it was further to be considered how ordinary people in the part of the country where the insured reside, in view of the state of things then existing, the frequency of such

Page 86 U. S. 535

races, and the way in which such matches are usually regulated, would naturally understand such language, whether as precluding such driving or not."

"That the jury should also consider the nature of the business of the insured as set forth in the application and therefore known to the defendant -- that of livery stable keeper -- which, of course, embraced the management and driving of horses."

"That the question was not what construction would be given to the language at Hartford, where the defendants' company was located, but, in view of all the circumstances and conditions above alluded to, whether intelligent, fair-minded people in the vicinity of the insured where the contract was made would regard it as excluding the driving of such a race, and, if not, that the case would not come within the proviso of that clause in the policy, and the plaintiff would, so far as that is concerned, be entitled to recover."

The jury found a general verdict for the plaintiff, and found in addition, in answer to questions specially submitted, a special finding thus:

"That when the sulky of Seaver came into collision with the sulky of Gilmore, Seaver jumped to the ground and was entirely clear from the sulky, harness, and reins, upright and uninjured, and spoke to his horse to stop, and then started forward to get hold of the lines to stop him, and in that attempt was killed."

The company excepted to the charge of the court, and, judgment going for the plaintiff, it brought the case here.

Page 86 U. S. 539

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The statutes of Vermont make all horse racing for any bet or wager a misdemeanor and impose a fine not exceeding $500 for the offense.

In regard to this branch of the defense, the court instructed the jury that they were to regard the trotting race, in which the insured was engaged when he jumped from the sulky and was killed, as a breach of the law within the meaning

Page 86 U. S. 540

of the clause of the policy on that subject. As the plaintiff below took no exception to this ruling and had a verdict, no error can be assigned on it here, and we need not further examine the argument of her counsel, which controverts that proposition.

The court further instructed the jury on this branch of the subject, as follows:

"That if the jury should find that Seaver was killed by the race itself, by an ordinary accident of the race, so that the race was the proximate cause of the death, the plaintiff could not recover; but if the jury should find that Gilmore turned his horse in intentionally and tortiously, with the purpose of winning the race at all hazards, whether he should crowd Seaver from the track or not, then that the conduct of Gilmore and not the race would be the proximate cause of the death, and the plaintiff would be entitled to recover."

"That the plaintiff's evidence showed that Gilmore, turning in as he did, was in violation of the rules of the race; that a man was usually to be taken as intending the natural and necessary consequences of his own acts. And that if the jury were of opinion that Gilmore drove, as he did tortiously, and with the intention of winning the race in any event, even though in his so doing he should crowd Seaver from the track and upset him, and that such driving caused the death of Seaver, then the jury should find for the plaintiff."

In regard to this, the plaintiff in error contends that no evidence was given tending to show that Gilmore intentionally and tortiously turned his horse with the purpose of winning the race at all hazards, whether he should crowd Seaver from the track or not. All that the bill of exceptions discloses on this point is that Seaver having the inside track, his mare broke and fell back a little;

"that Gilmore thereupon reined in towards the inside of the track, apparently to get the inside track, his team being then about half its length ahead of Seaver's mare; that Seaver's mare at

Page 86 U. S. 541

that moment regained her speed and, gaining on the other horse, the sulkies came into collision."

We think this a very slender foundation to put to the jury the question of Gilmore's tortious intention to drive Seaver from the track at all hazards and to rest upon that possible secret intention the proposition that the race was not the proximate cause of the death, but that Gilmore's act was. It was well calculated to mislead, and no doubt did mislead, the jury. If the legal proposition was sound, the state of the testimony, as given in the bill of exceptions, on which it was founded could hardly justify it. It would have been much nearer sound principle to have said to the jury that if Seaver saw that Gilmore was ahead of him ever so little, his persistence in so running his horse as to bring about a collision was willfully exposing himself to danger within the meaning of the policy.

But we are of opinion that if the testimony raised the point, the instruction was erroneous. The company, in protecting themselves against accident or death caused by a violation of law, acted upon a wise and prudent estimate of the dangers to the person generally connected with such violations. And in the class of cases under consideration, we have no question that the sum of money often at stake stimulates to further acts of carelessness in the way of violence, fraud, and a disregard of the rules of fair racing, which increase largely the dangers always attendant on that sport. The class of men who collect on such occasions and who often become the leading parties in the conduct of the affair when large sums of money are wagered have led to its denunciation by many wise and thoughtful people, and very surely adds to the risk of personal injury to the rider or driver. It was against this general species of danger, attending nearly all infractions of the law, that the company sought to protect itself by the clause of the policy in question, and of this class was the reckless driving of Gilmore. If his intentions were as bad as the instructions imply, they did not take the case out of the protection of the clause.

If Seaver had died the moment he was thrown from the

Page 86 U. S. 542

sulky, his death would have been caused by a violation of the law, though Gilmore may have disregarded the rules of the course and may have intentionally sought to run Seaver off the track.

The jury, in response to a request to find specially on certain points, did, in addition to a general verdict in favor of the plaintiff, make the following special finding:

"And the jury further find that when the sulky of Seaver came into collision with the sulky of Gilmore, Seaver jumped to the ground and was entirely clear from the sulky, harness, and reins, upright and uninjured, and spoke to his horse to stop, and then started forward to get hold of the lines to stop him, and in that attempt was killed."

It is said that this verdict is conclusive that the death of the deceased was not caused by the violation of the law in trotting for a wager, but by his own voluntary act when he was not trotting; and both parties appeal to the case of Insurance Company v. Tweed,* where it is said that when a new force or cause of the injury intervenes between the original cause and the accident, the former is the proximate cause.

But we do not think this new force or cause is sufficiently made out by this verdict. The leap from the sulky and securing the reins, and the subsequent fall and injury to Seaver are so close and immediate in their relation to his racing, and all so manifestly part of one continuous transaction, that we cannot, as this finding presents it, say there was a new and controlling influence to which the disaster should be attributed. If he had been landed safely from his sulky and, after being assured of his position, had, with full knowledge of what he was doing, gone to catch the animal, his death in that pursuit when the race was lost might have been too remote to bring the case within the exception.

But as the finding presents it, we cannot say that the accident was not caused by the race which was itself a violation of the law, and which might still have gone on had he caught his mare in time.

Page 86 U. S. 543

And we are to consider that both this special finding and the general verdict were probably influenced by the erroneous instruction we have already considered, and by that we are now about to mention.

The jury were told that if the death of the insured was caused by the willful exposure of himself to an unnecessary danger or peril within the meaning of the other clause in the policy relied on by the defendants, the plaintiff would not be entitled to recover. The court added:

"Upon this part of the case, it was to be considered, however, that the language of this clause must be taken most strongly against the defendant, because used in their policy, and for the purpose of inducing parties to take policies."

"It was also further to be considered how ordinary people in the part of the country where the insured resided, in view of the state of things then existing, the frequency of such races and the way in which such matches are usually regulated, would naturally understand such language, whether as precluding such driving or not."

"The jury should also consider the nature of the business of the insured, as set forth in the application, and therefore known to the defendant, that of a livery stable keeper, which of course embraced the management and driving of horses."

"That the question was not what construction would be given to the language at Hartford, where the defendant's company is located, but, in view of all the circumstances and conditions above alluded to, whether intelligent, fair-minded people in the vicinity of the insured where the contract was made would regard it as excluding the driving of such a race, and if not that the case would not come within the proviso of that clause in the policy, and the plaintiff would, so far as that is concerned, be entitled to recover."

We are of opinion that the language of this policy is to be construed by the court, so far as it involved matters of law, and by the jury aided by the court when it involved law and fact, and that in neither view of it was the opinion of ordinary people in view of the state of things where the deceased resided, or their understanding of its language in view of the

Page 86 U. S. 544

circumstances of the case, any sound criterion by which the judgment of the jury should be formed, and the instruction in this branch of the case was unwarranted and misleading.

The jury should have been left to decide for themselves, under all the facts before them attending the death of the insured, whether it was caused by his willful exposure to an unnecessary danger or peril. Such light as the court as a matter of law could give them on the subject of the willfulness of his conduct or the presence or absence of any necessity or the character of the necessity which would justify him might be proper, but this general reference to what ordinary people in a particular locality might think about it, was clearly not so.

For the errors here considered,

The judgment is reversed with direction to grant a new trial.

4 7 Wall. 44.

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