Reed v. Mutual Insurance Company/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

95 U.S. 23

Reed  v.  Mutual Insurance Company

This is a cause of contract, civil and maritime, commenced by a libel in personam by Samuel G. Reed, the appellant, against the Merchants' Mutual Insurance Company of Baltimore, the appellee, to recover $5,000, the amount insured by the latter on the ship 'Minnehaha,' belonging to the libellant. The policy was dated the fourteenth day of January, 1868, and insured said ship in the amount named, lost or not lost, at and from Honolulu, via Baker's Island, to a port of discharge in the United States not east of Boston, with liberty to use Hampton Roads for orders, 'the risk to be suspended while vessel is at Baker's Island loading.' The ship was lost at Baker's Island, where she had gone for the purpose of loading, on the third day of December, 1868. The defence was that the loss occurred whilst the risk was suspended under the clause above quoted; also laches by reason of the delay in commencing suit, being more than four years after the cause of action accrued.

This case, upon the merits, depends solely upon the construction to be given to the clause in the policy before referred to, namely, 'the risk to be suspended while vessel is at Baker's Island loading;' and turns upon the point whether the clause means, while the vessel is at Baker's Island for the purpose of loading, or while it is at said island actually loading. If it means the former, the company is not liable; if the latter, it is liable.

A strictly literal construction would favor the latter meaning. But a rigid adherence to the letter often leads to erroneous results, and misinterprets the meaning of the parties. That such was not the sense in which the parties in this case used the words in question is manifest, we think, from all the circumstances of the case. Although a written agreement cannot be varied (by addition or subtraction) by proof of the circumstances out of which it grew and which surrounded its adoption, yet such circumstances are constantly resorted to for the purpose of ascertaining the subject-matter and the stand-point of the parties in relation thereto. Without some knowledge derived from such evidence, it would be impossible to comprehend the meaning of an instrument, or the effect to be given to the words of which it is composed. This preliminary knowledge is as indispensable as that of the language in which the instrument is written. A reference to the actual condition of things at the time, as they appeared to the parties themselves, is often necessary to prevent the court, in construing their language, from falling into mistakes and even absurdities. On this subject Professor Greenleaf says: 'The writing, it is true, may be read by the light of surrounding circumstances, in order more perfectly to understand the intent and meaning of the parties; but, as they have constituted the writing to be the only outward and visible expression of their meaning, no other words are to be added to it, or substituted in its stead. The duty of the courts in such cases is to ascertain, not what the parties may have secretly intended, as contradistinguished from what their words express, but what is the meaning of the words they have used.' 1 Greenl. Evid., sect. 277. Mr. Taylor uses language of similar purport. He says: 'What ever be the nature of the document under review, the object is to discover the intention of the writer as evidenced by the words he has used; and, in order to do this, the judge must put himself in the writer's place, and then see how the terms of the instrument affect the property or subject-matter. With this view, extrinsic evidence must be admissible of all the circumstances surrounding the author of the instrument.' Taylor, Evid., sect. 1082. Again he says: 'It may, and indeed it often does, happen, that, in consequence of the surrounding circumstances being proved in evidence, the courts give to the instrument, thus relatively considered, an interpretation very different from what it would have received, had it been considered in the abstract. But this is only just and proper; since the effect of the evidence is not to vary the language employed, but merely to explain the sense in which the writer understood it.' Id., sect. 1085. See Thorington v. Smith, 8 Wall. 1, and remarks of Mr. Justice Strong in Maryland v. Railroad Company, 22 id. 105.

The principles announced in these quotations, with the limitations and cautions with which they are accompanied, seem to us indisputable; and, availing ourselves of the light of the surrounding circumstances in this case, as they appeared, or must be supposed to have appeared, to the parties at the time of making the contract, we cannot doubt that the meaning of the words which are presented for our consideration is that the risk was to be suspended while the vessel was at Baker's Island for the purpose of loading, whether actually engaged in the process of loading or not. Taking this clause in absolute literality, the risk would only be suspended when loading was actually going on. It would revive at any time after the loading was commenced, if it had to be discontinued by stress of weather, or any other cause. It would even revive at night, when the men were not at work. This could not have been the intent of the parties. It could not have been what they meant by the words 'while vessel is at Baker's Island loading.' It was the place, its exposure, its unfavorable moorage, which the insurance companies had to fear, and the risk of which they desired to avoid. The whole reason of the thing and the object in view point to the intent of protecting themselves whilst the vessel was in that exposed place for the purpose referred to, not merely to protect themselves whilst loading was actually going on. Her visit to the island was only for the purpose of loading; as between the contracting parties, she had no right to be there for any other purpose; and, supposing that they intended that the risk should be suspended whilst she was there for that purpose, it would not be an unnatural form of expression to say, 'the risk to be suspended while vessel is at Baker's Island loading.' And we think that no violence is done to the language used, to give it the sense which all the circumstances of the case indicate that it must have had in the minds of the parties.

If we are right in this construction of the contract, there can be no uncertainty as to its effect upon the liability of the underwriters. The loss clearly accrued at a time when, by the terms of the policy, the risk was suspended. The ship sailed in ballast from Honolulu on or about the 7th of November, 1867, and arrived at Baker's Island on the afternoon of the twentieth day of November, 1867. She came to her mooring in safety, and her sails were furled, shortly after which a heavy gale and heavy surf arose. The gale and surf continued with violence until the 3d of December, 1867, when the ship parted her moorings, and was totally wrecked and lost. At no time after her arrival at Baker's Island was it possible to discharge ballast or receive cargo or to commence the progress of loading. The violence of the winds, current, and waves, and their adverse course and direction, prevented the ship from slipping her cables and getting to sea, or otherwise escaping the perils that surrounded her.

These facts are indisputable; and they show that, when the loss occurred, the vessel was at Baker's Island for the purpose of loading. That the process of loading had not actually commenced is of no consequence. The suspension of the risk commenced as soon as the vessel arrived at the island and was safely moored in her proper station for loading.

The appellee, as a further defence, set up laches in bringing suit. The libel was not filed until more than four years had elapsed after the cause of action had accrued. The Statute of Limitations of Maryland requires actions of account, assumpsit, on the case, &c., to be brought within three years; and the counsel for the appellee insists that by analogy to this statute the Admiralty Court, having concurrent jurisdiction with the State courts in this case, should apply the same rule. We had occasion, in the case of The Key City, 14 Wall. 653, to explain the principles by which courts of admiralty are governed when laches in bringing suit is urged as an exception in cases cognizable therein. In view of the construction which we have given to the contract in this case, it is not necessary to pass upon the precise question now raised by the appellee.

It is also unnecessary to examine other questions which were mooted on the argument.

Decree affirmed.


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).