Insurance Company v. Piaggio

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

83 U.S. 378

Insurance Company  v.  Piaggio

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of Louisiana, in which court Piaggio brought suit against the New Orleans Insurance Company for a total loss, under two policies of insurance: the one for $7000, on the brig Sicilia, and the other for $5000 on her freight.

The petition alleged that the brig, having sailed from New Orleans for Helsingfors, in the Gulf of Finland, July 20th, 1870, was compelled 'by the perils of the seas and unavoidable accidents,' to put into Matanzas, Cuba; that the plaintiff, upon news of the disaster, gave information to the insurers and asked whether he should abandon the vessel, and was advised so to do; that thereupon he abandoned to the insurers, and claimed for a total loss, and the abandonment was accepted.

It further alleged that the brig, while in the port of Matanzas, was driven ashore by a hurricane, and, with her cargo, wrecked and entirely lost.

It further alleged that the insurers promised to pay the insurance on freight, and informed the plaintiff that they would telegraph to their bankers in London to pay the same to the plaintiff's order, but that soon after they declined to pay or recognize the loss, and recalled their instructions for payment given to their bankers; that when the plaintiff was informed that the insurance on freight would be paid, he drew against the amount on his correspondent in Genoa, to whom he had transferred the certificate of insurance on freight; that his draft was protested, and thereby his credit injured and his business damaged to the extent of $15,000.

It further alleged that the defendants had reinsured on this risk $10,000 with another company on the cargo of the vessel, and had paid to the said company the loss on said risk.

The plaintiff claimed the sums insured on the vessel and freight, and the damage of $15,000 with interest, for the non-payment.

The answer of the defendants put in issue, by denial, all the allegations of the petition, alleged that the policies were void for non-payment of premiums; that the brig was unseaworthy; that she put into Matanzas from unseaworthiness, and not from perils of the seas; and that there, the plaintiff's agents finding it impossible to raise money by bottomry to make her seaworthy, telegraphed a false account of her disasters, and that the defendants, trusting thereto, assented to abandonment, and, to accommodate the plaintiff, were willing to advance funds without waiting for the proofs and delays required by the policy; that learning the truth as to the abandonment, they revoked their acceptance of it, and declined to make the accommodation advances.

The answer then alleged that the policies were vitiated by the brig's deviation in voluntarily putting into Matanzas.

The policy set out in the plaintiff's petition contained clauses:'Warranted not to use ports in the West India Islands between July 15th and October 15th.

'No loss except general average shall in any case be paid unless amounting to 75 per cent., after deducting proceeds of savings, if any, and exclusive of all charges of ascertaining and proving the loss.'

On the trial the defendants requested the court to charge:

'1. That if the jury find that the plaintiff abandoned the voyage when he had no right to make the abandonment of the Sicilia, by reason of repairs needed, falling short of the 75 per cent. of valuation of said Sicilia, under the warranty of the policy on the hull, then the plaintiff cannot recover on the policy for the freight, and his abandonment of the freight-list to the insurers did not bind the latter.'

'The court refused to give this charge because it was in proof that an abandonment had been made and accepted without fraud, and under and in accordance with the advice of the defendant.'

'2. That an abandonment made by plaintiff through error, and accepted through error by the defendant, whether conditionally or unconditionally, is null and void, if not warranted at the time under the policy of insurance.'

'This was refused as irrelevant; no evidence having been adduced of error by either party. The court therefore considered it to be merely a speculative instruction or charge.'

'3. As the policy of insurance warrants that the insurers would be liable only for total loss, or constructive total loss, when the damage exceeded 75 per cent., if the jury find that the damage to the brig Sicilia, when in the port of Matanzas, did not exceed 75 per cent. of the value put on her in the policy after deductions stated in said policy, then the plaintiff had no right to make an abandonment.'

'The court refused to give the charge because it was in proof that an abandonment had been made and accepted without fraud, and under and in accordance with the advice of the defendant.'

'4. That the reinsurance by the defendants of the cargo of the Sicilia to the amount of $10,000, which had been insured by another company, not being made in favor of the plaintiff, who was a total stranger to this transaction, has no connection with the issues raised as to the policy on the hull and freight of the Sicilia, and therefore can have no bearing on the decision of this jury; and that in the absence of proof as to the warranties in said insurance and reinsurance policies of $10,000 on the cargo, it is impossible to determine whether or not the payment and reimbursement of the said $10,000 were properly and correctly made; and that whether properly or improperly made that circumstance cannot militate either for or against either the plaintiff or defendant in the present controversy.'

'The court refused to give the said charge;' no reason being assigned.

To these four refusals the defendants excepted.

The court charged (the defendants again excepting):

'That independent of the abandonment, if the jury believe there was an actual total loss by storm and disaster of the sea, the plaintiff has a right to recover.'

The jury found a verdict in these words:

'That the plaintiff shall recover from defendants the sum of $7000 under his policy of insurance in the hull of the vessel; the sum of $5700, gold coin, under his policy of insurance in the freight-list; together with interest on these two amounts, as prayed for in his petition; and the further sum of $5000 damages, with interest at the rate of 5 per cent. from the date of judicial demand.'

A motion to set aside the verdict and for a new trial being refused, the court thus entered its judgment:

'By reason of the verdict and in accordance therewith it is ordered, adjudged, and decreed, that the plaintiff do have and recover of the defendant the sum of $7000 under his policy on the hull of brig Sicilia; the sum of $5700, gold coin, under his policy on the freight-list; together with 5 per cent. interest on said two sums from September 29th, 1870, till paid; and the further sum of $5000 damages, with 5 per cent. interest from the 14th of December, the day of judicial demand, till paid, and costs of suit.'The return to this court did not contain any of the evidence given at the trial, which seemed to have occupied several days, with an examination of seven witnesses orally, and numerous documents.

The case came here by writ of error; on the following assignment of errors:

I. The allowance and computation in the judgment of damages, for non-payment of the freight insurance, to wit, $5000, and interest thereon, over and above the full sums insured in both policies and interest thereon.

II. The allowance and computation in the judgment of the loss under the vessel policy, notwithstanding the breach of the warranty against the use of West India ports in that policy, and the loss of the vessel in such a port during such breach.

III. The errors in the refusals to charge, and in the charge, as already set forth in the five bills of exceptions and the foregoing statement.


Mr. W. M. Evarts, for the plaintiff in error:


I. It is not necessary to argue, or adduce authorities for, the proposition that interest is the only damages for the simple non-payment of money according to duty, or to implied or express contract. That the allowance of $5000 as damages, over and above the insurance-moneys, and interest on them, was error, on the face of the record, and without any reference to any possible evidence or ruling at the trial, and that, for this error, the judgment below must be reversed, is indisputable.

II. As to the second ground for a new trial for error apparent upon the record, to wit: the breach of warranty, in the use of the West India port of Matanzas, and the wreck by a hurricane in that port, the only question seems to be as to the consequence of the absence from the record of any evidence bearing upon the point of this resort to the port of Matanzas being voluntary or under stress from perils insured against. But, on the face of the contract, a breach of its warranty arises by the resort to this West India port, and the wreck from peril there supervening. The affirmative proof to defeat this consequence of this apparent breach of warranty is wholly wanting. Presumptively, no such proof was offered at the trial. It is not allowable for the plaintiff in error to incumber the record by all the evidence at the trial upon the motive and to the end of showing that no such proof was given. The defendant in error should have procured the presence of such evidence, if any was given at the trial, by the appropriate applications in the court below or in this court.

III. The errors exhibited on the bills of exception.

1st. The instruction asked for and refused, and made the occasion of the first bill of exceptions, was proper to be given, and the refusal to give it was error. The court put its refusal to give this instruction upon the single ground 'that it was in proof that an abandonment had been made and accepted without fraud, and under and in accordance with the advice of the defendants.' But this was in issue on the pleadings and proofs, and was the very thing to be passed upon by the jury. The court refused a proper instruction, on a question of law, by usurpation of the province of the jury, on a question of fact.

2d. The same observations, in substance, apply to the second bill. A proper instruction, as matter of law, is refused upon an assumption of a conclusion of fact, which belonged to the jury.

3d. The error under the third bill is of the same character as that under the first; the observations made upon that are applicable to this.

4th. The instruction asked for and refused was clearly proper, and the exception in the fourth bill was well taken. The evidence had been taken upon this extraneous transaction, and for the purpose of affecting the verdict of the jury, which it was well calculated to do. The court was rightly called upon to exclude this consideration from affecting the mind of the jury, unless it was, in law, a proper subject for their consideration in this case. It manifestly was not proper, as an element in the jury's conclusions in this case.

5th. The passage in the charge of the judge which is made the subject of the fifth bill, as an abstract and general proposition, may be unobjectionable. But, indisputably, the only 'actual total loss by storms and disaster of the sea,' was by the hurricane in the port of Matanzas, and this naked charge, applied to this state of facts, was equivalent to a peremptory charge that, without regard to the antecedent history of the voyage, or to the warranties of the policies, the plaintiffs had a right to recover for a total loss under both policies. But this depends upon the question whether the total wreck by the hurricane, in the port of Matanzas, was covered or not by the policies, as an original and independent cause of loss. And this depended upon the previous history of the voyage, and could only be disposed of by the verdict of the jury, under proper instructions from the court, covering these anterior considerations.

Mr. T. J. Durant, contra.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.

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).