McMaster v. New York Life Ins. Co., 183 U.S. 25 (1901)

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Author: Justice Fuller

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McMaster v. New York Life Ins. Co., 183 U.S. 25 (1901)

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

By the payment of the annual premiums in advance and the delivery of the policies, McMaster’s life became insured in the sum of $5,000.

The contracts were not assurances for a single year, with the privilege of renewal from year to year on payment of stipulated premiums, but were entire contracts for life, subject to forfeiture by failure to perform the condition subsequent of payment as provided, or to conversion in 1913 at the election of the assured. Thompson v. Insurance Company, 104 U.S. 252; New York Life Insurance Company v. Statham, 93 U.S. 30.

The contention of the company presented by its answer was that McMaster requested that the policies "should be issued, dated, and take effect the same date as the application, namely, the 12th day of December, 1893," that the policies were accordingly so issued, and that McMaster’s acceptance of them estopped his representative from denying that date, or claiming that the request that the policies should be so dated was not made by him.

But the policies were not dated December 12, and were dated December 18, the day on which they were actually issued. The applications were in terms parts of the policies, and by them it was agreed that the policies, though issued, should not be in force until the actual payment and acceptance of the premiums. This was a provision intended to cover any time which might elapse between issue and delivery and payment. So that, notwithstanding the premiums in this instance were not actually paid and received and the policies delivered until December 26, it may be conceded that, and in accordance with the practice in such matters, the contracts of insurance commenced to run from December 18, rather than from December 26. They were certainly not in force on December 12, 1893. No controversy was raised as to fractions of a day, or the exclusion or inclusion of the first day, and it was conceded that payment on January 12, in one view, or on January 18, in the other, would have averted a forfeiture.

Assuming, however, that the alleged request was not made by McMaster, that it was not at least literally, complied with, or that it was immaterial, the company insists that the policies expressly required payment of the annual premiums subsequent to the first (payable and paid on delivery) on December 12 in each year, commencing with December 12, 1894; that McMaster, in accepting them without objection, became bound by this requirement, and could not plead ignorance thereof resulting from not reading them when tendered, and that therefore these policies were properly forfeited January 12, 1895, being twelve months from December 12, 1893, with a month of grace added.

The applications were part of the policies, and from them it appeared, and was found by the circuit court, that McMaster applied for insurance "on the ordinary life table, the premium to be payable annually." He was solicited to insure by the company’s agent, and might, according to the company’s form which was used, have asked that the premiums be payable annually, semiannually, or quarterly, but he chose that they should be payable annually, and that the rate of premium should be calculated on that basis by the ordinary life table. The company assented to this, and fixed the annual premium on each policy at $21, on payment of which -- that is, payment in advance -- the policy was to go into effect. The payments were made, and the insurance was put in force for McMaster’s life, subject, it is true, to forfeiture for nonpayment of subsequent premiums, but forfeiture when? If within the first year, then the payment for that year did not secure the immunity from forfeiture during the year which had been contracted and paid for.

But the company says that McMaster requested that the policies should go into effect on December 12, 1893, and that his representative is estopped from denying that that is the operation of the policies as framed and accepted, or that the second premiums matured December 12, 1894.

It was found from the evidence that, after McMaster had signed the applications, and without his knowledge or assent, the agent of the company inserted therein: "Please date policy same as application;" and it was further found that, when the policies were returned to Sioux City, and were taken by the company’s agent to McMaster, he

asked the agent if the policies were as represented, and if they would insure him for the period of thirteen months, to which the agent replied that they did so insure him, and thereupon McMaster paid the agent the full first annual premium or the sum of $21 on each policy, and without reading the policies he received them and placed them away.

We think the evidence of this unauthorized insertion, and of what passed between the agent and McMaster when the policies were delivered, taken together, was admissible on the question whether McMaster was bound by the provision that subsequent payment should be made on December 12, commencing with December 12, 1894, because requested by him, or because of negligence on his part in not reading the policies.

The applicable statutes of Iowa declared that

any person who shall hereafter solicit insurance or procure applications therefor shall be held to be the soliciting agent of the insurance company or association issuing a policy on such application, or on a renewal thereof, anything in the application or policy to the contrary notwithstanding.

Each policy provided that, after it had been in force for three months,

a grace of one month will be allowed in payment of subsequent premiums, subject to an interest charge of 5% per annum for the number of days during which the premium remains due and unpaid. During the said month of grace, the unpaid premium, with interest as above, remains an indebtedness due the company, and, in the event of death during said month, this indebtedness will be deducted from the amount of the insurance.

This was a month in addition to the period covered by premiums already paid.

McMaster was justified in assuming, and on the findings must be held to have assumed, that if he paid the first annual premium in full, he would be entitled to one year’s protection, and to one month of grace in addition -- that is, to thirteen months’ immunity from forfeiture. And the findings show that the company, by its agent, gave that meaning to the clause, and that McMaster was induced to apply for the insurance by reason of the protection he supposed would be thus obtained.

In Continental Life Insurance Company v. Chamberlain, 132 U.S. 304, it was decided that a person procuring an application for life insurance in Iowa became, by force of the statute, the agent of the company in so doing, and could not be converted into the agent of the assured by any provision in the application.

In that case, the applicant was required to state whether he had any other insurance on his life. He was in fact a member of several cooperative associations, and therefore did have other insurance, but the soliciting agent of the company, to whom he stated the facts, believing that insurance of that kind was not insurance within the meaning of the question, wrote "No other" as the proper answer at the same time assuring the applicant that it was such. And this Court held that the company was bound by the interpretation put upon the question by its soliciting agent.

When, then, McMaster signed these applications, he understood, and the company by its agent understood, that if the risks were accepted at the home office, he would, by paying one year’s premium in full, obtain contracts of insurance which could not be forfeited until after the expiration of thirteen months.

The company accepted the risks and issued the policies December 18, and they were delivered and the premiums paid December 26.

Bearing in mind that McMaster had made no request of the company in respect of antedating the policies, and was ignorant of the interpolation of the agent, and ignorant in fact and not informed or notified in any way of the insertion of December 12 as the date for subsequent payments, he had the right to suppose that the policies accorded with the applications as they had left his hands, and that they secured to him, on payment of the first annual premiums in advance, immunity from forfeiture for thirteen months. And the agent assured him that this was so.

This situation being thus, we are unable to concur in the view that McMaster’s omission to read the policies when delivered to him and payment of the premiums made constituted such negligence as to estop plaintiff from denying that McMaster, by accepting the policies, agreed that the insurance might be forfeited within thirteen months from December 12, 1893. Knights of Pythias v. Withers, 177 U.S. 260, and cases cited; Fitchner v. Fidelity Mut. Fire Assoc., 103 Ia. 279; Hartford &c. Ins. Co. v. Cartier, 89 Mich. 41.

On the other hand, can the company deny that McMaster obtained insurance which was not forfeitable for nonpayment of premiums within thirteen months after the first payment?

If it can, by reason of its own act, without McMaster’s knowledge, actual or legally imputable, then the company’s conduct would have worked a fraud on McMaster in disappointing, without fault on his part, the object for which his money was paid. The motive of the agent to get a bonus for himself rather than to deceive McMaster is not material, as the result of his action would be the same. To permit the company to deny the acts and statements on which the transaction rested would produce the same injury to McMaster, no matter what the agent’s motives.

But what is the proper construction of these contracts in respect of the asserted forfeiture? The company, although retaining the premiums paid and not offering to return them, contends that if McMaster was not bound by an agreement that the subsequent premiums should be paid on December 12, then that the minds of the parties had not met, because it had not contracted except on the basis of payments so to be made; but the question still remains whether the right of recovery in this case is dependent on such payment on the 12th day of December, 1894, or within thirty days thereafter.

We are dealing purely with the question of forfeiture, and the rule is that if policies of insurance contain inconsistent provisions or are so framed as to be fairly open to construction, that view should be adopted, if possible, which will sustain rather than forfeit the contract. Thompson v. Phenix Insurance Company, 136 U.S. 287; National Bank v. Insurance Company, 95 U.S. 673.

Each of these policies recited that it was made in consideration of the written application therefor, which was made part thereof, and of the payment in advance of an annual premium of twenty-one dollars, "and of the payment of a like sum on the twelfth day of December in every year thereafter during the continuance of this policy."

Does this latter provision require payment of an annual premium during the year already secured from forfeiture by payment made in advance?

May not the words "in every year thereafter" mean in every year after the year the premiums for which have been paid? Or in every year after the current year from the date of the policy?

At all events, if the payment in advance was a payment which put in force a contract good for life, determinable by nonpayment of subsequent premiums, and this first payment was payment of the premiums for a year, could the requirement of payment of a second annual premium within that year be given greater effect than the right to cancel the policies from January 18, 1895, if such payment were not tendered until after the lapse of thirteen months from December 12, 1893?

To hold the insurance forfeitable for nonpayment of another premium within the year for which payment had already been fully made would be to contradict the legal effect under the applications and policies of the first annual payment. Clearly, such a construction is uncalled for if the words "the twelfth day of December in every year thereafter" could be assumed to mean in every year after the year for which the premiums had been paid. But if not, taking all the provisions together and granting that the words included December 12, 1894, nevertheless it would not follow that forfeiture could be availed of to cut short the thirteen months’ immunity from December 18, 1893, as the premiums had already been paid up to December 18, 1894. And the company could not be allowed, on this record, by making the second premiums payable within the period covered by the payment of the first premium, to defeat the right to the month of grace which had been proffered as the inducement to the applications, and had been relied on as secured by the payment. If death had occurred on December 18, 1894, or between the twentieth and eighteenth, it is quite clear that recovery could have been had, and as the contracts were for life, and were not determinable (at least for twenty years) at a fixed date, but only by forfeiture, it appears to us that the applicable rules of construction forbid the denial of the month of grace in whole or in part.

It is worthy of remark that it was specifically provided that, after the policies had been in force one full year, they should become incontestable on any other ground than nonpayment of premiums, and we suppose it will not be contended that, if any other ground of contest had existed and death had occurred between December 12 and December 18, 1894, the company would have been cut off from making its defense, because the policies had been in force "one full year" from December 12.

And if not in force until December 18, the date of actual issue, how can it be said that liability to forfeiture accrued before the twelve months had elapsed?

The truth is the policies were not in force until December 18, and as the premiums were to be paid annually, and were so paid in advance on delivery, the second payments were not demandable on December 12, 1894, as a condition of the continuance of the policies from the twelfth to the eighteenth. And as the policies could not be forfeited for nonpayment during that time, the month of grace could not be shortened by deducting the six days which belonged to McMaster of right.

In our opinion, the payment of the first year’s premiums made the policies nonforfeitable for the period of thirteen months, and inasmuch as the death of McMaster took place within that period, the alleged forfeiture furnished no defense to the action.

The judgment of the circuit court of appeals is reversed; the judgment of the Circuit Court is also reversed, and the cause is remanded to the latter court with a direction to enter judgment for plaintiff in accordance with the eighteenth finding, with interest and costs.

MR. JUSTICE BREWER did not hear the argument, and took no part in the decision.

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Chicago: Fuller, "Fuller, J., Lead Opinion," McMaster v. New York Life Ins. Co., 183 U.S. 25 (1901) in 183 U.S. 25 183 U.S. 36–Joint_183 U.S. 42. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLZ6GIGW5F8I83Q.

MLA: Fuller. "Fuller, J., Lead Opinion." McMaster v. New York Life Ins. Co., 183 U.S. 25 (1901), in 183 U.S. 25, pp. 183 U.S. 36–Joint_183 U.S. 42. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLZ6GIGW5F8I83Q.

Harvard: Fuller, 'Fuller, J., Lead Opinion' in McMaster v. New York Life Ins. Co., 183 U.S. 25 (1901). cited in 1901, 183 U.S. 25, pp.183 U.S. 36–Joint_183 U.S. 42. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLZ6GIGW5F8I83Q.