Page images
PDF
EPUB

Vol. I.)

DE LANCEY v. INSURANCE Company.

[No. 2.

falsifying an important fact by declaring that they made application for policies, reversing the first material step in the negotiation. An insurance company by its agent making assiduous application to an individual to make application to the company for a policy, was a sample of the crookedness characteristic of the whole business.

When a premium payer met with a loss, and called for the payment promised in the policy which he had accepted upon the most zealous solicitation, he was surprised to find that the voluminous, unread, and unexplained papers had been so printed at head-quarters, and so filled out by the agents of the company, as to show that he had applied for the policy. This, however, was the least of his surprises. He was informed that he had not only obtained the policy on his own application, but had obtained it by a series of representations (of which he had not the slightest conception), and had solemnly bound himself by a general assortment of covenants and warranties (of which he was unconscious), the number of which was equalled only by their variety, and the variety of which was equalled only by their supposed capacity to defeat every claim that could be made upon the company for the performance of its part of the contract. He was further informed that he had succeeded in his application by the falsehood and fraud of his representations, — the omission and misstatement of facts which he had expressly covenanted truthfully to disclose. Knowing well that the application was made to him, and that he had been cajoled by the skilful arts of an importunate agent into the acceptance of the policy and the signing of some paper or other, with as little understanding of their effect as if they had been printed in an unknown and untranslated tongue, he might well be astonished at the inverted appli. cation, and the strange multitude of fatal representations and ruinous covenants. But when he had time to realize his situation, — had heard the evidence of his having beset the invisible company, and obtained the policy by just such means as those by which he knew he had been induced to accept it, and listened to the proof of his obtaining it by treachery and guile, in pursuance of a premeditated scheme of fraud, with intent to swindle the company in regard to a lien for assessments, or some other matter of theoretical materiality, he was measurably prepared for the next regular charge of having burned his own property.

With increased experience came a constant expansion of precautionary measures on the part of the companies. When the court held (Marshall v. C. M. F. I. Co. 27 N. H. 157; Campbell v. M. f F. M. F. 1. Co. 37 N. H. 35; Clark v. U. M. F. I. Co. 40 N. H. 333) that the agent's knowledge of facts not stated in the application was the company's knowledge, and that an unintentional omission or misrepresentation of facts known to the company would not invalidate the policy, the companies, by their agents, issued new editions of applications and policies, containing additional stipulations, to the effect that their agents were not their agents, but were the agents of the premium payers ; that the latter were alone responsible for the correctness of the applications; and that the companies were not bound by any knowledge, statements, or acts of any agent, not contained in the application. As the companies' agents filled the blanks to suit themselves, and were in that matter necessarily trusted by themselves and by the premium payers, the confidence which they

[ocr errors]

worn to that an uot stated in 1 campbell v. the court ha preca

Vol. I.]

DE LANCEY . INSURANCE COMPANY.

[No. 2

reposed in themselves was not likely to be abused by the insertion in the applications of any unnecessary evidence of their own knowledge of anything, or their own representations, or their dictation and management of the entire contract on both sides. Before that era, it had been understoood that a corporation — an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law — was capable of acting only by agents. But corporations, pretending to act without agents, exhibited the novel phenomena of anomalous and nondescript as well as imaginary beings, with no visible principal or authorized representative; no attribute of personality subject to any law, or bound by any obligation ; and no other evidence of a practical, legal, physical, or psychological existence than the collection of premiums and assessments. The increasing number of stipulations and covenants, secreted in the usual manner, not being understood by the premium payer until his property was burned, people were as easily beguiled into one edition as another, until at last they were made to formally contract with a phantom that carried on business to the limited extent of absorbing cash received by certain persons who were not its agents.

When it was believed that things had come to this pass, the legislature thought it time to regulate the business in such a manner that it should have some title to the name of insurance, and some appearance of fair dealing ; and the act of 1855 was passed for that purpose.

The loss of the time occupied by the solicitations of insurance agents, the loss of premiums and assessments paid, the loss of insurance security, the vexation and costs of lawsuits lost upon the astute and technical character of applications and policies not understood by the premium payers, the manner in which innocent and deluded persons were overwhelmed by an array of their theoretical misrepresentations and constructive frauds, and other misfortunes incident to the system, were believed to constitute a crying evil, and a mischief of great magnitude. (Whether any remedy was available at common law or in equity, upon higher grounds and broader views than were taken — U. M. L. Ins. Co. v. Wilkinson, and note on that case in 11 Am. Law Reg. (N. S.) 485 – we need not, in this construction of statutes, stop to consider.) When the premium payer complained that he had been defrauded, it was not, in the opinion of the legislature, a sufficient answer to say that, if he had been wise enough, taken time enough, had good eyes enough, and been reckless enough in the use of them to read the mass of fine print, and had been scholar, business man, and lawyer enough to understand its full force and effect, he would have been alarmed, and would not have been decoyed into the trap that was set for him. Men have a right to be dealt with with some regard for the state of mind and body, of knowledge and business, in which they are known actually to exist. Whether they ought to be what they are, or not, the fact is, that, in the present condition of society, men in general cannot read and understand these insurance documents. Whether it be reliance upon the representations of the companies' agents, or want of taste for literary pursuits and critical exegesis, or defect of legal attainments, or press of business, or fatigue of daily labor, or dislike of insurance typography, — whatever the cause may be, the fact is, that, under the ordinary circumstances of the present

Vol. I.]
DE LANCEY v. INSURANCE COMPANY.

(No. 2. order of things, these documents are illegible and unintelligible to the generality of mankind. And it seemed to the legislature that the companies who sent out their agents, knowing they would be confided in by the premium payers to transact the business properly, and who issued applications and policies which they knew would not be understood, should not take an unfair advantage of mistakes into which the companies themselves, by their agents and their fine print, caused the premium payers to innocently and unconsciously fall. The action of the legislature was certainly in harmony with, if, indeed, it was anything more than an affirmance of, the common law (in relation to fraud, estoppel, and trust), which will not hear a man complain that he has led his neighbor into a pit. It was also thought that insurance companies, in danger of being defrauded by the premium payer's burning his own property, were required, by their private interest and their public duty, to see to it that they did not insure his property to such an amount as to lead him into temptation; and that their devices were not a prevention of, nor an appropriate protection against, the fraudulent incendiarism propagated throughout the country by excessive amounts of pretended insurance.

As the distress of those who met with losses was not alleviated by the • eminent respectability of the men whose names figured as officers of the

companies, so it was the nature of a system so liable to abuse, and not the character of the nominal or real managers of the companies, that was supposed to call for the interference of the legislature. With no fault in many, and probably with substantial fault in but a few, the system came to be excessively odious; it was believed there had seldom been so flagrant an abuse of corporate power.

The act of 1855 cut up a considerable part of the supposed evil by the roots. Upon a full trial of the remedy, from 1855 to 1862, it seemed to answer the high expectations that had been formed of it, and was perfectly satisfactory to the people of the State. In this state of things the defendants claim that, by the special act of 1862, in addition to the defendants' charter, the legislature abolished the remedy, not generally, in favor of all insurance companies, but by an exception in favor of this company alone, leaving the public securely guarded against all other companies, and giving to this company alone the legal right to take advantage of an innocent mistake, which right (if it ever existed) the legislature had taken away from this company and all other companies seven years before. It is not to be presumed that the legislature, of their own motion, passed the act of 1862 in ignorance of its tenor and practical effect, or that this company fraudulently procured its passage. No reason is suggested to show why the legislature should revive the evil which they had explicitly abolished — abolish the remedy which was thought to be perfectly indispensable, and, after a thorough trial of seven years' duration, had been found perfectly successful — and give this company a monopoly of insurance fraud. What great and conspicuous benefits these defendants had conferred upon the State; what enormous and exceptional service this particular company was to render the public over and above all other companies engaged in the same business ; in what respect it was so peculiar an institution as to be selected for distinguishing marks of public favor,

Vol. I.)

DE LANCEY v. INSURANCE COMPANY.

(No. 2.

and loaded with the bounty and perpetual pension and franchise of defrauding the whole community, — on this subject, history, as well as the act of 1862, is silent, and conjecture fails. Until some explanation is given, the presumption must be almost irresistible that the legislature did not do what the defendants claim they did.

It is not for the court to legislate by construing an act to be what they think it ought to be ; but, in ascertaining the meaning of the act of 1862, by the settled rules of construction, it is our duty to give due weight to the history of all the legislation on the subject matter of the act, and the reason and policy of the general law of the land, in connection with which the special act of 1862 is to operate. The presumption which we have found, arising upon considerations of this kind, is not absolutely irresistible and conclusive, because it would be possible for the legislature to use language sufficiently explicit to leave no room for doubt of their intent to do what the defendants claim they did. If the legislature had passed a general act, saying, in so many words, “ The act of 1855, chapter 1662, is hereby repealed,” there would have been no question what that meant. If, instead of a general act of that kind, there had been a special act, explicitly declaring that policies issued by this company should be void by reason of innocent mistakes of the premium payers, and that this company should be exempted from the operation of the sixth section of the act of . 1855, we might be compelled to admit that the legislature intended not only to expose the community to an unnecessary danger of fraud, but also to violate those principles of free government which require laws, as far as practicable, to be general, equal, and uniform, and prohibit unjust discriminations and monopolies.

It is not claimed that the general act of 1855 was repealed, but it is claimed that this company was exempted from the operation of the sixth, section of that act. The general drift of the Constitution is distinctly hostile to the creation of discriminating and unreasonable privileges and immunities; the declaration of Article X of the Bill of Rights, that government is instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men, is plain and explicit : and the declaration of Article XXXVI, that a pension should be granted with great caution, and only in consideration of actual services, and never for more than one year at a time, is very significant. And it is difficult to over-estimate the weight of the natural presumption that the legislature did not intend either to pass an act that would be void, because evidently a breach of constitutional obligations, or to pass one that would so far indirectly defy the general spirit of the paramount law, — though not in direct, open, and violent conflict with any of its specific provisions, — as to be of doubtful validity. It is always to be presumed — and the presumption is to stand until the contrary is shown by an immense preponderance of evidence that the legislature have not intended to disregard the doctrine of equal rights, upon which our institutions were founded. Whether every possible application of that doctrine is guaranteed in express terms in the Constitution, or whether some applications of it are necessarily to be inferred from the general tone and temper of that instrument, and its comprehensive declarations of the doctrine, it is extremely improbable that a legislature,

Vol. I.]

DE LANCEY v. INSURANCE COMPANY.

(No. 2.

presumed to be well affected to free institutions in theory and practice, have intended, by an application of the doctrine of unequal rights, to build on some other foundation than that laid by competent authority.

It would be a serious misfortune if, by construing the Constitution strictly in its general direction, and liberally in other directions, or by adopting any arbitrary rule or eccentric habit of construction, it were rendered necessary to constantly amend the Constitution by inserting such specific guarantees as would be, in fact, mere applications of the general principles of the original instrument to changed circumstances and new conditions of society. Such a custom of amendment would propagate erroneous ideas of the original, break the uniformity and shake the permanency of its principles, and materially impair its efficacy. If the court should hold that the legislature intended to make unreasonable discriminations and to establish unreasonable franchises, not for the common benefit, protection, and security of the whole community, but for the private interest or emolument of some one man, family, or class of men, and should further hold that the legislature had the power to do this, in any case not within the condemnation of some constitutional provision more explicit than Article X of the Bill of Rights, the government would be turned into a course not designed by its founders. Standing on the presumption of a legislative intent to support the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution, the court is not justified in holding, upon any light grounds, that the legislature have carelessly, unintelligently, or in bad faith, discharged the duty forcibly called to their attention by their official oath; and when a statute is fairly and reasonably capable of a construction consistent with the doctrines of the Constitution, it must ordinarily, if not always, be the duty of the court to give it that construction.

Upon a just consideration of the province of construction as the discovery of the legislative intent, the history of legislation on the subject matter of the third section of the private act of 1862, the reason and policy of the general act of 1855, the mischief which the act of 1855 was designed to remedy, and the presumption that the legislature passed the act of 1862 with a becoming regard for constitutional principles, the defendants' construction of that act is extremely unreasonable. A different construction must be very unreasonable indeed to prevent its being adopted in preference to the defendants'.

The title of the act of 1862 is, “An act in addition to an act to incorporate the Rockingham Farmers' Mutual Fire Insurance Company,” — not a word indicating a purpose to amend the act of 1855, entitled “ An act in relation to insurance companies,” but every word indicating a purpose to amend the charter of this company, passed in 1833. A material modification of or exception to the general law would naturally be put in a general act, and not in a private one, which would not be likely to be published in revisions of the statutes. An important amendment of a general act inserted in a private one, with nothing in the title of the latter suggesting the amendment, is not according to the usual course of legislation in this State. Not only is there nothing in the title of the act of 1862 suggesting an amendment of the act of 1855, but in the body of the former act there is no allusion to the latter; and, from a perusal of the private act alone, no one would suspect that it modified, or introduced an

« PreviousContinue »