Insurance Company v. Eggleston/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 572

Insurance Company  v.  Eggleston


We have recently, in the case of Insurance Company v. Norton (supra, p. 234), shown that forfeitures are not favored in the law; and that courts are always prompt to seize hold of any circumstances that indicate an election to waive a forfeiture, or an agreement to do so on which the party has relied and acted. Any agreement, declaration, or course of action, on the part of an insurance company, which leads a party insured honestly to believe that by conforming thereto a forfeiture of his policy will not be incurred, followed by due conformity on his part, will and ought to estop the company from insisting upon the forfeiture, though it might be claimed under the express letter of the contract. The company is thereby estopped from enforcing the forfeiture. The representations, declarations, or acts of an agent, contrary to the terms of the policy, of course will not be sufficient, unless sanctioned by the company itself. Insurance Company v. Mowry, supra, p. 544. But where the latter has, by its course of action, ratified such declarations, representations, or acts, the case is very different.

In the present case, it appeared that the company had discontinued its agency at the place of residence of the insured soon after the policy was issued; and had given him notice by mail, from time to time, as the premium instalments became due, where and to whom to pay them,-sometimes at Savannah, several hundred miles, and sometimes at Vicksburg, a hundred and fifty miles, from his residence. Such notice, it would seem, had never been omitted prior to the maturity of the last instalment. The effect of the judge's charge was, that if this was the fact, and if no such notice had been given on that occasion, and the failure to pay the premium was solely due to the want of such notice, it being ready, and being tendered as soon as notice was given, no forfeiture was incurred. We think the charge was correct, under the circumstances of this case. The insured had good reason to expect and to rely on receiving notice to whom and where he should pay that instalment. It had always been given before; the office of the company was a thousand miles away; and they had always directed him to pay to an agent, but to different agents at different times.

Although, as we held in he case of Insurance Company v. Davis (95 U.S. 425), the legal effect of a policy, when nothing appears to the contrary, may be that the premium is payable at the domicile of the company; yet it cannot be expected or understood by the parties that the policy is, in ordinary circumstances, to be forfeited for a failure to tender the premium at such domicile, when the insured resides in a distant State, and has been in the habit, under the company's own direction, to pay to an agent there, and has received no notice that the contrary will be required of him. He would have a just right to say that he had been misled.

Let us look at the matter as it stands. The business of life insurance is in the hands of a few large companies, who are generally located in our large commercial cities. Take a company located, like the plaintiff in error, in New York, for example. It solicits business in every State of the Union, where it is represented by its agents, who issue policies and receive premiums. Could such a company get one risk where it now gets ten, if it was expected or understood that it was not to have local agents accessible to the parties insured, to whom premiums could be paid, instead of having to pay them at the home office in New York? The universal practice is otherwise. Local agents are employed. The business could not be conducted on its present basis without them. Now, suppose the local agent is removed, or cease to act, without the knowledge of the policy-holders, and their premiums become due, and they go to the local office to pay them, and find no agent to receive them; are these policies to be forfeited? Would the plaintiffs in error, or any other company of good standing, have the courage to say so? We think not. And why not? Simply because the policy-holders would have the right to rely on the general understanding produced by the previous course of business pursued by the company itself, that payment could be made to a local agent, and that the company would have such an agent at hand, or reasonably accessible. We do not say that this course of business would alter the written contract, or would amount to a new contract relieving the parties from their obligation to pay the premium to the company, if they can find no agent to pay to. That obligation remains. But we are dealing with the question of forfeiture for not paying at the very day; and, in reference to that question, it is a good argument in the mouths of the insured to say, 'Your course of business led us to believe that we might pay our premiums at home, and estops you from exacting the penalty of forfeiture without giving us reasonable notice to pay elsewhere.' The course of business would not prevent the company, if it saw fit, from discontinuing all its agencies, and requiring the payment of premiums at its counter in New York. But, without giving reasonable notice of such a change, it could not insist upon a forfeiture of the policies for want of prompt payment caused by their failure to give such notice. In the case of Insurance Company v. Davis, cited above, the agent's powers were discontinued by the occurrence of the war, of which all persons had notice; and the law of the non-intercourse between belligerents prevented any payment at all; and the policy became forfeited and ended without any fault attributable to either of the parties. That case, therefore, was entirely different from the present; and it was in consequence of such forfeiture in the absence of fault that we held, in the case of New York Life Insurance Co. v. Statham et al. (93 U.S. 24), that the insured was entitled to recover the equitable value of his policy.

In the present case, it seems to us that the charge of the judge was in substantial conformity to the principles we have laid down. The insured, residing in the State of Mississippi, had always dealt with agents of the company, located either in his own State or within some accessible distance. He had originally taken his policy from, and had paid his first premium to, such an agent; and the company had always, until the last premium became due, given him notice what agent to pay to. This was necessary, because there was no permanent agent in his vicinity. The judge rightly held, that, under these circumstances, he had reasonable cause to rely on having such notice. The company itself did not expect him to pay at the home office: it had sent a receipt to an agent located within thirty miles of his residence; but he had no knowledge of this fact,-at least, such was the finding of the jury from the evidence.

We think there was no error in the charge, and the judgment of the Circuit Court must be

Affirmed.

Notes[edit]

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).