Northwestern Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. McCue, 223 U.S. 234 (1912)


U.S. Supreme Court

Northwestern Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. McCue, 223 U.S. 234 (1912)

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company v. McCue

No. 138

Argued December 20, 21, 1911

Decided February 19, 1912

223 U.S. 234



U.S. Supreme Court

Northwestern Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. McCue, 223 U.S. 234 (1912) Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company v. McCue

No. 138

Argued December 20, 21, 1911

Decided February 19, 1912

223 U.S. 234




The obligation of a contract depends upon the law of the state where made.

A life insurance policy which, by its terms, does not become a completed contract until delivery on payment of first premium is to be construed as a contract made in the state where the first premium is paid and the policy delivered, notwithstanding a recital that it is to be construed as though made in another state. Equitable Life Society v. Clemens, 140 U. S. 226.

In this case, held that a policy issued by a Wisconsin company on the life of a resident of Virginia, to whom it was delivered in that state on payment of the first premium, is a Virginia contract.

Even though a policy in a mutual life insurance company be a property right, it is the measure of rights of everyone thereunder, and if the owner thereof cannot recover because it would be against public policy to permit a recovery, neither can the innocent heirs of that person recover.

A policy of life insurance, silent on the point, does not cover death by the hand of the law. This is consonant with the rulings of the Virginia courts.

Quaere whether, in a case of this nature, this Court would have to yield to the determination of what a state court has declared to be its public policy.

Quaere what the public policy of the Wisconsin is on the liability of an insurance company for death of the insured by the hand of the law.

167 F. 435 reversed.

The facts, which involve the liability of a life insurance company on a policy on the life of one who came to his death by hanging after conviction and sentence for murder,

Page 223 U. S. 235

and the construction of the policy itself, as well as by what law it is to be construed, are stated in the opinion.

Page 223 U. S. 243

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in the case is whether death by the hand of the law in execution of a conviction and sentence for murder is covered by a policy of life insurance, though such manner of death is not excepted from the policy, there being no question of the justness of the sentence.

The case was in equity, and brought in the Corporation Court for the City of Charlottesville, State of Virginia, by respondents, children and sole heirs of James S. McCue, by Marshall Dinwiddie, their next friend, upon a policy of life insurance issued to McCue by petitioner, named herein as the insurance company.

The main defense of the insurance company was (there were some technical defenses with which we are not concerned) that McCue came to his death by hanging after conviction and sentence for the murder of his wife.

The suit was brought under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia against the insurance company, the People's National Bank of Charlottesville, as garnishee, and the executors of McCue's estate.

The case was removed on the petition of the insurance company, on the ground of a separable controversy, to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Virginia. In that court, there was a demurrer filed to the bill which raised the question as to the proper arrangement of the parties, and whether the heirs or the executors were the parties to recover on the policy, assuming that the insurance company was liable. In the answer,

Page 223 U. S. 244

the same questions were again raised and all liability of the insurance company denied, principally on the ground of the manner by which McCue came to his death.

At the trial, the technical defenses were waived and, by agreement of the parties, the heirs of McCue and his executors were treated as parties plaintiff. The court, considering the cause as one at law, and a jury having been waived by the parties, adjudged on the pleadings and an agreed statement of facts "that the plaintiffs take nothing by their bill, and that said defendant go without day," with costs, the latter to be paid by a deposit made in the registry of the court in refund of the premium paid by McCue, as far as it would go. The judgment was reversed by the court of appeals, and a new trial ordered. This certiorari was then petitioned for and allowed.

The facts as agreed are these: the insurance company is a corporation duly organized under the laws of Wisconsin, and a citizen and resident thereof. It is a mutual insurance company, with the power and obligations given to and imposed upon it by certain acts of the Legislature of Wisconsin, which acts constitute its charter.

The People's National Bank of Charlottesville was made a party solely as garnishee, it having certain sums of money belonging to the insurance company in its possession.

McCue made written application to the insurance company in his own handwriting for the policy in suit, in pursuance of which the policy was issued for the sum of $15,000 on his life. He paid premiums as follows: when the policy was delivered to him, he gave his note for the sum of $427.50 for the premium to E. L. Carroll and L. Fitzgerald, payable to their order, six months after date at the Jefferson National Bank, Charlottesville, Virginia. Carroll & Fitzgerald at the time were soliciting insurance for T. A. Cary, the general agent of the insurance company in Virginia. The note was indorsed by Carroll &

Page 223 U. S. 245

Fitzgerald to Cary, with the following memorandum attached: "$427.50. Hold this note in Mr. Cary's office (don't use bank). Notify Mr. McC. about thirty days before due, and send it to E. L. Carroll for collection." Carroll & Fitzgerald gave their individual notes to Mr. Cary, amounting to $427.50, on which he advanced the money to the company and held the notes for collection, with McCue's note as collateral.

The company received at its home office in Milwaukee the amount of the premium in cash from Cary on May 2, 1904, but had no knowledge of the note arrangement between McCue, Carroll & Fitzgerald, and Cary. The note was paid by McCue by checks after he had been arrested, he protesting his innocence, "which facts were known to Cary." The note arrangement was a general custom among soliciting agents for the company. Other facts will be noted hereafter.

The main question in the case is, as we said, the liability of the company under the circumstances. Or, to put it more abstractly for the present purpose of our discussion, whether a policy of life insurance insures against death by a legal execution for crime.

The question was before this Court in Burt v. Union Central Life Insurance Company, 187 U. S. 362. In the policy passed on, as in the policy in the case at bar, there was no provision excluding death by the law. It was decided, however, that such must be considered its effect, though the policy contained nothing covering such contingency. These direct questions were asked: "Do insurance policies insure against crime? Is that a risk which enters into and becomes a part of the contract?" And answering, after discussion, we said:

"It cannot be that one of the risks covered by a contract of insurance is the crime of the insured. There is an implied obligation on his part to do nothing to wrongfully accelerate the maturity of the policy. Public policy forbids the insertion

Page 223 U. S. 246

in a contract of a condition which would tend to induce crime, and as it forbids the introduction of such a stipulation, it also forbids the enforcement of a contract under circumstances which cannot be lawfully stipulated for."

Cases were cited, among others Ritter v. Mutual Life Insurance Company, 169 U. S. 139. There it was held that a life insurance policy taken out by the insured for the benefit of his estate was avoided when one of sound mind intentionally took his life, irrespective of the question whether there was a stipulation in the policy or not. And the conclusion was based, among other considerations, upon public policy, the Court saying that

"a contract, the tendency of which is to endanger the public interests or injuriously affect the public good, or which is subversive of sound morality, ought never to receive the sanction of a court of justice, or be made the foundation of its judgment."

These cases must be accepted as expressing the views of this Court as to the public policy which must determine the validity of insurance policies, and which they cannot transcend even by explicit declaration, much less be held to transcend by omissions or implications, and we pass by, therefore, the very interesting argument of counsel for respondents as to the indefinite and variable notions which may be entertained of such policy according to times and places and the temperaments of courts, and the danger of permitting its uncertain conceptions to control or supersede the freedom of parties to make and to be bound by contracts deliberately made. We come, therefore, immediately to the special contention of respondents that the contract in controversy is a Wisconsin contract, and is not offensive to the public policy of that state or to its laws, but was indeed, as it is contended, made in conformity to the laws of that state, and carries all of their obligations.

The obligation of a contract undoubtedly depends upon

Page 223 U. S. 247

the law under which it is made. In which state, then, Virginia or Wisconsin, was the policy made? In Equitable Life Assurance Society v. Clements, 140 U. S. 226, the question arose whether the contract of insurance sued on was made in New York or Missouri. The assured was a resident of Missouri, and the application for the policy was signed in Missouri. The policy, executed at the office of the company, provided that the contract between the parties was completely set forth in the policy and the application therefor, taken together. The application declared that the contract should not take effect until the first premium should have been actually paid during the life of the person proposed for assurance. Two annual premiums were paid in Missouri, and the policy, at the request of the assured, was transmitted to him in Missouri, and there delivered to him. The court said:

"Upon this record, the conclusion is inevitable that the policy never became a completed contract, binding either party to it, until the delivery of the policy and the payment of the first premium in Missouri, and consequently that the policy is a Missouri contract, and governed by the laws of Missouri."

In Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Cohen, 179 U. S. 262, the insurance policy contained a stipulation that it should not be binding until the first premium had been paid and the policy delivered. The premium was paid and the policy delivered in Montana. It was held that, "under these circumstances, under the general rule, the contract was a Montana contract, and governed by the laws of that state." Citing Equitable Life Assurance Society v. Clements, supra.

The same conditions existed in Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York v. Hill, 193 U. S. 551, and it was decided, the two cases above mentioned being cited, that the policy of insurance involved was a Washington contract, not a New York contract.

Page 223 U. S. 248

In the case at bar, the application was made by McCue at Charlottesville, Virginia, February 25, 1904, and the policy was delivered to him there on March 15, 1904, when he gave his note for the premium which was payable at that place and subsequently paid there. And it is provided in the policy that it should not take effect until the first premium should be actually paid. Following that provision is this:

"In witness whereof, the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, at its office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has by its president and secretary signed and delivered this contract, this fifteenth day of March, one thousand nine hundred and four."

But manifestly this was not intended to affect the preceding provision, fixing the time when the policy should go into effect, nor the legal consequences which followed from it. In Equitable Life Assurance Society v. Clements, the policy was executed at the company's office in New York. The exact conditions therefore existed which made, in the cases cited, the policies involved therein not New York contracts, but, respectively, Missouri, Montana, and Washington contracts. The policy, therefore, in the case at bar, must be held to be a Virginia, and not a Wisconsin, contract.

Respondents, however, contend that "the right asserted is a property right, vested by the special statute of incorporation, which is not divested by crime;" and that "the charter controls the rights of members irrespective of the place where such rights may have been acquired." To support the contention that the right asserted is a property right, respondents adduce §§ 1, 4, 7, and 20 of the charter. Their argument is brief and direct, and we may quote it. It is as follows:

"Under the charter of the company, McCue occupied the relation of a member of the company. This was a valuable property right. Upon his death, this membership passed to his executors."

And further:

"The charter of the company, § 1, provided that certain persons

Page 223 U. S. 249

named 'and all other persons who may hereafter associate with them in the manner hereinafter prescribed shall be, and are, declared a body politic and corporate.' Section 4 prescribes that persons who shall hereafter insure with the company 'shall thereby become members thereof.' And section 7 prescribes the manner in which this membership is to be perfected. 'Every person who shall become a member of this association, by effecting insurance therein, shall, the first time he effects insurance, pay the rates fixed by the trustees,' etc. There can be no doubt, then, that McCue was a member of this corporation. He insured with the company, and thereby he became a member. His interest in the company was fixed by the amount of his insurance. This membership constituted a vested property right. He was eligible as an officer, and entitled to vote in the management of the company (§ 20); entitled to the dividends on the surplus and profits (§ 2, § 13), and was a joint owner of the assets of the company."

But this is assuming what is to be proved. It may be true that a person who insures with the company becomes a member thereof, and that his interest is fixed at the amount of his insurance. But what constitutes his title or right? Necessarily, his policy. What entitles him to a realization of the benefits of his membership? Necessarily, again, his policy, if the manner of his death be not a violation of it. We need not follow counsel, therefore, through their argument as to the rights of property and the rules of its devolution, which, it is contended, must obtain whatever be the act or guilt of the person producing it. The question before us, and the only question, is what rights did McCue's estate and children get by his policy? And we are brought back to the simple dispute as to whether the policy covers death by the hand of the law. This Court has pronounced on that dispute, and its ruling must prevail in the federal courts of Virginia, in which state the contract was made. And it is consonant with the ruling in the

Page 223 U. S. 250

state courts. In Plunkett v. Supreme Conclave Improved Order of Heptasophs, 105 Va. 643, a certificate of membership in the Conclave which was issued to one Charles W. Plunkett, his wife being beneficiary, was considered. One of the conditions was that Plunkett comply with the laws, rules, and regulations then governing the Conclave or that might in the future be enacted. There was no provision against suicide in the laws, rules, or regulations when the certificate was issued. Such a provision was subsequently enacted. Plunkett committed suicide, and the Order refused to pay benefits. Plunkett's wife brought suit to recover them, and asserted a vested interest in the benefits under the certificate. The contention was rejected. The trial court held that the forfeiture of the rights under the certificate if the insured while sane committed suicide was valid because (1) it involved no vested right of the insured, and (2) because it was a fundamental, though unexpressed, part of the original contract that the insured should not intentionally cause his own death. And the court added:

"Inasmuch as the original contract and bylaws were silent upon the subject of suicide by the insured while sane, the new bylaw is valid, because there can be no such thing as a vested right for a sane man to commit suicide, and for the further reason that it is nothing more than the written expression of the provision which the law had read into the contract at its inception."

The Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, quoting the reasoning of the trial court, and added to it the considerations of public policy expressed in the Burt case and Ritter case, supra, and other cases. If the public policy of Virginia were the same as, it is contended, that of Wisconsin is, whether this Court should have to yield it we are not called upon to decide.

Being of opinion that McCue's policy was a Virginia contract, it may be unnecessary to review the cases relied

Page 223 U. S. 251

on by the respondents, which they contend declare the public policy of the State of Wisconsin. It may, however, be said that the cases are not absolutely definite.

Two cases only are cited, McCoy v. Northwestern Mutual Relief Association, 92 Wis. 577, and Patterson v. The Natural Premium Ins. Co., 100 Wis. 118. We will not consider the facts in the first case. It is enough to say that the court, following a ruling that it had pronounced in other cases, said: "If a contract for life insurance does not provide against death by suicide or self-destruction, then such cause of death does not constitute a defense," citing four cases. The second also presented one of suicide, the insured being sane. It was contended that the policy did not cover such a risk, because (1) an incontestable clause (there being one) in the contract did not cover such a death; (2) if it could be held so in terms, it would be void, as against public policy; (3) suicide was a crime, and hence within a stipulation against death in violation of law.

The reliance of the insurance company to support its contentions was upon the Ritter case, supra. The court, however, reiterated its former ruling as to death by suicide, though it recognized the cogency of the reasoning of the Ritter case, that the insured should do nothing to accelerate the contingency of the policy, saying (p. 122):

"Were the question a new one in the law, the argument would be well nigh irresistible, especially where, as in the Ritter case, the policy runs in favor of the estate of the insured, and the proceeds will go to the enrichment of such estate, instead of to other beneficiaries."

There were other beneficiaries in the case, the policy having been assigned, with the consent of the company, to the children of the insured. Commenting further on that fact, the court said it brought the case within the principle of certain cases which were cited, but added,

"nor would the application of that principle to this case necessarily

Page 223 U. S. 252

conflict with the Ritter case, where the policy was in favor of the estate of the insured. It may well be in such a case that the intentional suicide of the insured while sane would prevent a recovery by his personal representatives and yet not prevent a recovery in case of a policy in favor of beneficiaries who had a subsisting vested interest in the policy at the time of the suicide, and who could not, if they would, prevent the act of the insured."

McCue's policy was in favor of his estate, and comes within the concession made by the supreme court to the reasoning of the Ritter case.

The court did not discuss considerations of public policy, but we may assume it found nothing offensive to such policy in a contract of insurance which covered death by suicide, and it may be supposed that the court would find nothing repugnant to public policy in a contract which did not except death for crime. However, we need not speculate, as the Wisconsin law does not control the policy in suit.

One other contention of respondents remains to be noticed. It is contended that, if the McCue estate cannot recover, the innocent parties, his children, will be admitted as claimants. To this contention we repeat what we have said above -- the policy is the measure of the rights of everybody under it, and, as it does not cover death by the law, there cannot be recovery either by McCue's estate or by his children.

Judgment of the court of appeals is reversed, and that of the Circuit Court is affirmed.