Life Insurance Company v. Francisco/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 672

Life Insurance Company  v.  Francisco

The evidence that preliminary proof of the death of Francisco and of the justice of the claim of the assured were given to the defendants ninety days before the suit was brought was quite sufficient to go to the jury. The proofs were in forms, blanks for which had been furnished by the insurers, and the forms were filled up in the presence of their agent. He received them without objection, and it does not appear that at any time before the trial of the case it was ever suggested to the assured that the proofs were insufficient, either in form or in substance. Clearly, therefore, it was not for the court to instruct the jury that the plaintiff was not entitled to a verdict. It seems to have been the idea of the defendants that the statements of the witnesses by whom the preliminary proofs were made did not establish the justice of the plaintiff's claim. But whether they did or not was a question which the court had no right to determine as a conclusion of law. They furnished, at least, some evidence that the claim was just, and this they would have furnished had they contained nothing more than averments that the defendants had agreed to insure, and that the person whose life was insured had died. The first assignment of error is, therefore, not sustained.

The second is equally without merit. After the case had been summed up, and when the court was about the charge the jury, the defendants offered to submit prayers for instructions, but the court refused to receive them, assigning as a reason that the offer was too late. This is alleged to have been an error. What the prayers were, whether the instructions asked were pertinent to the case or not, or whether they could rightfully have been given had they been received, we are not informed. They were not incorporated in the bill of exceptions, and they do not appear in the record. But, assuming that they were such as the court ought to have given had they been presented in time, there was no error in refusing to receive them after the case had been argued to the jury. The rule of the court then existing was as follows: 'In causes, civil or criminal, tried by a jury, any special charge or instruction asked for by either party must be presented to the court, in writing, directly after the close of the evidence and before any argument is made to the jury, or they will not be considered.' This is a reasonable rule, intended to guard as well the court as the opposite party against sudden surprise. It does not deprive either party of a right to the opinion of the court upon any material propositions which he may desire to have presented to the jury. It merely regulates the exercise of that right. The rule exists in very many courts, and it has been found necessary in the administration of justice. No doubt a court may, notwithstanding the rule, in its discretion, receive prayers for instructions even after the general charge has been given to the jury, but neither party can claim as a right a disregard of the ordinary rules of practice in the court. There is nothing inconsistent with this to be found in the case cited. [4] On the contrary, whether a court shall enforce such a rule, or depart from it, is treated in that case as a matter resting in the discretion of the court. That it is competent for courts to adopt such a rule has often been decided, and once, at least, if not oftener, in California. [5]

The remaining errors have been assigned to the charge of the court. The principal defence set up at the trial was that in the application for insurance false answers had been given to the questions propounded by the defendants. Those questions were, in substance, whether the person whose life was proposed for insurance had had certain diseases, or, during the next preceding seven years, any disease, and the answers given were that he had not. It was in reference to this that the court instructed the jury it was for them to determine from the evidence whether the person whose life was insured had, during the time mentioned in the questions propounded on making the application, any affliction that could properly be called a sickness or disease, within the meaning of the term as used, and said, 'for example, a man might have a slight cold in the head, or a slight headache, that in no way seriously affected his health or interfered with his usual avocations, and might be forgotten in a week or a month, which might be of so trifling a character as not to constitute a sickness or a disease within the meaning of the term as used, and which the party would not be required to mention in answering the questions. But again, he might have a cold or a headache of so serious a character as to be a sickness or disease within the meaning of those terms as used which it would be his duty to mention, and a failure to mention which would make his answer false.'

There is no just ground of complaint in this instruction, either considered abstractly or in its application to the evidence in the case. It was, in effect, saying that substantial truth in the answer was what was required. If, therefore, the defendants have been injured it was by the verdict of the jury rather than by any error of the court.



^4  People v. Williams, 32 California, 280

^5  People v. Sears, 18 California, 635.

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).