Aetna Life Insurance Company v. Town of Middleport/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

124 U.S. 534

Aetna Life Insurance Company  v.  Town of Middleport

In the argument of the demurrer before the circuit court, several objections to the bill were taken. The defendant in error, however, relies here upon three principal grounds of defense: First, it denies the right of subrogation, upon which rests the whole case of the complainant; second, it relies upon the statute of limitations of five years; and, third, it asserts that the former decree in the state court is a bar to the action here. The circuit court held that the statute of limitations was a bar to the present suit, and dismissed the bill on that ground.

But we regard the primary question, whether the complainant is entitled to be substituted to the rights of the railroad company after buying the bonds of the township, a much more important question, and are unanimously of opinion that the transaction does not authorize such subrogation. The bonds in question in this suit were delivered by the agents of the town of Middleport to the railroad company, and by that company sold in open market as negotiable instruments to the complainant in this action. There was no indorsement, nor is there any allegation in the bill that there was any express agreement that the sale of these bonds carried with them any obligation which the company might have had to enforce the appropriation voted by the town. Notwithstanding the averment in the bill that the intent of complainant in purchasing said bonds, and paying its money therefor, was to acquire such rights of subrogation, it cannot be received as any sufficient allegation that there was a valid contract to that effect. On the contrary, the bill fairly presents the idea that by reason of the facts of the sale the complainant was in equity subrogated to said rights, and entitled to enforce the same against the town of Middleport. The argument of the learned counsel in the case is based entirely upon the right of the complainant to be subrogated to the rights of the railroad company by virtue of the principles of equity and justice. He does not set up any claim of an express contract for such subrogation. He says: 'The equity alleged in the plaintiff's bill is, as I have said, the equity of subrogation. Before proceeding to call the attention of the court to the facts from which this equity arises, it may be useful to advert to the instances in which the right of subrogation exists, and to the principles on which it rests.' He founds his argument entirely upon the proposition that when the complainant purchased these bonds he thereby paid the debt of the town of Middleport to the railroad company, as voted by it, and that, because it paid this money to that company on bonds which are void, it should be subrogated to the right of the company against the town. The authorities on which he relies are all cases in which the party subrogated has actually paid a debt of one party due to another, and claims the right to any security which the payee in that transaction had against the original debtor. But there is no payment in the case before us of any debt of the town. The purpose of the purchase as well as the sale of these bonds, and what the parties supposed they had effected by it, was not the payment of that debt, but the sale and transfer of a debt of the town from one party to another, which debt was evidenced by the bonds that were thus transferred. Neither party had any idea of extinguishing by this transaction the debt of the town. It was very clear that it was a debt yet to be paid, and the discount and interest on the bonds was the consideration which induced the complainant to buy them.

The language of this court in Otis v. Cullum, 92 U.S. 447, is very apt, and expresses precisely what was done in this case. In that case Otis & Co. were the purchasers of bonds of the city of Topeka from the First National Bank of that place. These bonds were afterwards held by this court to be void for want of authority, just as in the case before us. A suit was brought against the bank, which had failed and was in the hands of a receiver, to recover back the money paid to it for the bonds. After referring to the decision of Lambert v. Heath, 15 Mees. & W. 486, this court said: 'Here, also, the plaintiffs in error got exactly what they intended to buy, and did buy. They took no guaranty. They are seeking to recover, as it were, upon one, while none exists. They are not clothed with the rights which such a stipulation would have given them. Not having taken it, they cannot have the benefit of it. The bank cannot be charged with a liability which it did not assume. Such securities throng the channels of commerce, which they are made to seek, and where they find their market. They pass from hand to hand like bank-notes. The seller is liable ex delicto for bad faith; and ex contractu there is an implied warranty on his part that they belong to him, and that they are not forgeries. Where there is no express stipulation, there is no liability beyond this. If the buyer desires special protection, he must take a guaranty. He can dictate its terms, and refuse to buy unless it be given. If not taken, he cannot occupy the vantage ground upon which it would have placed him.'

Nor can this case be sustained upon the principle laid down in this court in Louisiana v. Wood, 102 U.S. 294. That was a case in which the city of Louisiana, having a right by its charter to borrow money, had issued bonds and placed them on the market for that purpose. These bonds were negotiated by the agents of the city, and the money received for their sale went directly into its treasury. It was afterwards held that they were invalid for want of being registered. Afterwards the parties who had bought these bonds brought suit against the city for the sum they had paid, on the ground that the city had received their money without any consideration, and was bound ex oequo et bono to pay it back. The court said: 'The only contract actually entered into is the one the law implies from what was done, to-wit, that the city would, on demand, return the money paid to it by mistake, and, as the money was got under a form of obligation which was apparently good, that interest should be paid at the legal rate from the time the obligation was denied.'

In the present case there was no borrowing of money. There was nothing which pretended to take that form. No money of the complainants ever went into the treasury of the town of Middleport; that municipality never received any money in that transaction. It did not sell the bonds, either to complainant or anybody else. It simply delivered bonds, which it had no authority to issue, to the railroad company, and that corporation accepted them in satisfaction of the donation by way of taxation which had been voted in aid of the construction of its road. The whole transaction of the execution and delivery of these bonds was utterly void, because there was no authority in the town to borrow money or to execute bonds for the payment of the sum voted to the railroad company. They conferred no right upon anybody, and of course the transaction by which they were passed by that company to complainant could create no obligation, legal or implied, on the part of the town to pay that sum to any holder of these bonds.

City of Litchfield v. Ballou, 114 U.S. 190, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 820, sustains this view of the subject. That town had issued bonds for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a system of water-works. In that case, as in Louisiana v. Wo d, the bonds were so far in excess of the authority of the town to create a debt that they were held by this court to be void, in the case of Buchanan v. Litchfield, 102 U.S. 278. After this decision, Ballou, another holder of the bonds, brought a suit in equity upon the ground that, though the bonds were void, the town was liable to him for the money which he had paid in their purchase. This court held that there was no equity in the bill, on the ground that, if the plaintiff had any right of action against the city for money had and received, it was an action at law, and equity had no jurisdiction. It was also attempted, in that case, to establish the proposition that, the money of the plaintiffs having been used in the construction of the water-works, there was an equitable lien in favor of the plaintiffs on those works for the sum advanced. This was also denied by the court.

One of the principles lying at the foundation of subrogation in equity, in addition to the one already stated, that the person seeking this subrogation must have paid the debt, is that he must have done this under some necessity, to save himself from loss which might arise or accrue to him by the enforcement of the debt in the hands of the original creditor; that, being forced under such circumstances to pay off the debt of a creditor who had some superior lien or right to his own, he could, for that reason, be subrogated to such rights as the creditor, whose debt he had paid, had against the original debtor. As we have already said, the plaintiff in this case paid no debt. It bought certain bonds of the railroad company at such discount as was agreed upon between the parties, and took them for the money agreed to be paid therefor. But, even if the case here could be supposed to come within the rule which requires the payment of a debt in order that a party may be subrogated to the rights of the person to whom the debt was paid, the payment in this case was a voluntary interference of the AEtna Company in the transaction. It had no claim againt the town of Middleport. It had no interest at hazard which required it to pay this debt. If it had stood off, and let the railroad company and the town work out their own relations to each other, it could have suffered no harm and no loss. There was no obligation on account of which, or reason why, the complainant should have connected itself in any way with this transaction, or have paid this money, except the ordinary desire to make a profit in the purchase of bonds. The fact that the bonds were void, whatever right it may have given against the railroad company, gave it no right to proceed upon another contract and another obligation of the town to the railroad company. These propositions are very clearly stated in a useful monograph on the Law of Subrogation, by Henry N. Sheldon, and are well established by the authorities which he cites. The doctrine of subrogation is derived from the civil law, and 'it is said to be a legal fiction, by force of which an obligation extinguished by a payment made by a third person is treated as still subsisting for the benefit of this third person, so that by means of it one creditor is substituted to the rights, remedies, and securities of another. * * * It takes place for the benefit of a person who, being himself a creditor, pays another creditor whose debt is preferred to his by reason of privileges or mortgages, being obliged to make the payment, either as standing in the situation of a surety, or that he may remove a prior incumbrance from the property on which he relies to secure his payment. Subrogation, as a matter of right, independently of agreement, takes place only for the benefit of insurers; or of one who, being himself a creditor, has satisfied the lien of a prior creditor; or for the benefit of a purchaser who has extinguished an incumbrance upon the estate which he has purchased; or of a co-obligor or surety who has paid the debt which ought, in whole or in part, t have been met by another. Sheld. Subr. §§ 2, 3. In section 240 it is said: 'The doctrine of subrogation is not applied for the mere stranger or volunteer who has paid the debt of another without any assignment or agreement for subrogation, without being under any legal obligation to make the payment, and without being compelled to do so for the preservation of any rights or property of his own.' This is sustained by a reference to the cases of Shinn v. Budd, 14 N. J. Eq. 234; Sandford v. McLean, 3 Paige, 117; Hoover v. Epler, 52 Pa. St. 522.

In Gadsden v. Brown, Speer, Eq. 37, 41, Chancellor JOHNSON says: 'The doctrine of subrogation is a pure, unmixed equity, having its foundation in the principles of natural justice, and from its very nature could never have been intended for the relief of those who were in any condition in which they were at liberty to elect whether they would or would not be bound; and, so far as I have been able to learn its history, it has never been so applied. If one with a perfect knowledge of the facts will part with his money, or bind himself by his contract in a sufficient consideration, any rule of law which would restore him his money or absolve him from his contract would subvert the rules of social order. It has been directed in its application exclusively to the relief of those that were already bound, who could not but choose to abide the penalty.' This is perhaps as clear a statement of the doctrine on this subject as is to be found anywhere.

Chancellor WALWORTH, in the case of Sandford v. McLean, 3 Paige, 122, said: 'It is only in cases where the person advancing money to pay the debt of a third party stands in the situation of a surety, or is compelled to pay it to protect his own rights, that a court of equity substitutes him in the place of the creditor, as a matter of course, without any agreement to that effect. In other cases the demand of a creditor, which is paid with the money of a third person, and without any agreement that the security shall be assigned or kept on foot for the benefit of such third person, is absolutely extinguished.'

In Railroad Co. v. Dow, 120 U.S. 287, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 482, this court said: 'The right of subrogation is not founded on contract. It is a creation of equity; is enforced solely for the purpose of accomplishing the ends of substantial justice, and is independent of any contractual relations between the parties.'

In the case of Shinn v. Budd, 14 N. J. Eq. 234, the New Jersey chancellor said: 'Subrogation as a matter of right, as it exists in the civil law, from which the term has been borrowed and adopted in our own, is never applied in aid of a mere volunteer. Legal substitution into the rights of a creditor, for the benefit of a third person, takes place only for his benefit who, being himself a creditor, satisfies the lien of a prior creditor, or for the benefit of a purchaser who extinguishes the incumbrances upon his estate, or of a coobligor or surety who discharges the debt, or of an heir who pays the debts of the succession. Code Nap. bk. 3, tit. 3, art. 1251; Civil Code La. art. 2157; 1 Poth. Obl. pt. 3, c. 1, art. 6, § 2. 'We are ignorant,' say the supreme court of Louisiana, 'of any law which gives to the party who furnishes money for the payment of a debt the rights of the creditor who is thus paid. The legal claim alone belongs, not to all who pay a debt, but only to him who, being bound for it, discharges it.' Nolte & Co. v. Their Creditors, 9 Mart. (La.) 602; Curtis v. Kitchen, 8 Mart. (La.) 706; Cox v. Baldwin, 1 Miller, (La.) 147. The principle of legal substitution, as adopted and applied in our system of equity, has, it is believed, been rigidly restrained within these limits.' The cases here referred to as having been decided in the supreme court of Louisiana are especially applicable, as the Code of that state is in the main founded on the civil law from which this right of subrog tion has been adopted by the chancery courts of this country. The latest case upon this subject is one from the appellate court of the state of Illinois,-Suppiger v. Garrels, 20 Bradw. 625,-the substance of which is thus stated in the syllabus: 'Subrogation in equity is confined to the relation of principal and surety and guarantors; to cases where a person, to protect his own junior lien, is compelled to remove one which is superior; and to cases of insurance. * * * Any one who is under no legal obligation or liability to pay the debt is a stranger, and, if he pays the debt, a mere volunteer.' No case to the contrary has been shown by the researches of plaintiff in error, nor have we been able to find anything contravening these principles in our own investigation of the subject. They are conclusive against the claim of the complainant here, who in this instance is a mere volunteer, who paid nobody's debt, who bought negotiable bonds in open market without anybody's indorsement, and as a matter of business. The complainant company has therefore no right to the subrogation which it sets up in the present action.

Without considering the other questions, which is unnecessary, the decree of the circuit court is affirmed.

These principles require, also, the affirmance of the decrees in the cases of the same appellant against the town of Belmont, (No. 1,135,) and the town of Milford, (No. 1,136;) and so it is ordered.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).