RESPONDENT: New York Life Insurance Company
LOCATION: New York Life Insurance & Annuity
DOCKET NO.: 58
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
CITATION: 359 US 437 (1959)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1959
DECIDED: May 18, 1959
GRANTED: Jun 23, 1958
Norman G. Tenneson - for the respondent
Philip B. Vogel - for the petitioner
Facts of the case
William Dick was a 47-year-old farmer and experienced hunter who lived with his wife Blanche on a farm near Englevale, North Dakota. William had two life insurance policies issued by the New York Life Insurance Company, a New York corporation, payable to his wife. Each contained a double indemnity clause preventing payment if William's death resulted from “self-destruction, whether sane or insane.” On January 20, 1955, between 10:30 and 11:00 am, Blanche entered the farm’s silage shed and found her husband lying on his back. She saw a wound on his head and knew he was dead; William's double-barreled shotgun was lying near his body.
The county sheriff later determined that the shotgun was held about eighteen inches from William's body with the stock toward the feet and the barrel along the body when it was fired. He also determined that the gun likely did not fire from a person jarring, pounding, or dropping it, although there was also evidence that the gun had occasionally discharged accidentally in the past. Dr. Veitch, the county coroner, found another wound in William's chest, but determined that it was the wound to William's head that caused his immediate death; the chest wound likely only resulted in a great deal of pain. Dr. Veitch, who was also William's personal physician, testified that William had mild to moderate non-specific prostatitis, which left him tired but did not prevent him from doing farm work. William did not apparently leave a suicide note or mention suicide to his relatives or friends. In connection with Blanche's later claim for benefits, however, Dr. Veitch listed the cause of death as “suicide.”
New York Life Insurance filed an action in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction, claiming that William committed suicide. Under North Dakota law, proof of insurance coverage and death by gunshot wound shifted the burden to the insurer to prove that the death was not accidental. The jury found for Blanche Dick and awarded $7,500 in damages. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, reviewed the evidence and determined that the shotgun could not have fired unless someone or something pushed or pulled one of the triggers. It further concluded that the evidence could not be reconciled with any reasonable theory that the shooting was accidental, given William's experience as a hunter and the multiple gunshot wounds on his body.
Did the Eighth Circuit United States Court of Appeals properly reverse the district court’s determination that the cause of William Dick’s death was a question of fact for the jury?
Media for Dick v. New York Life Insurance CompanyAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1959 (Part 2) in Dick v. New York Life Insurance Company
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1959 (Part 1) in Dick v. New York Life Insurance Company
Philip B. Vogel:
May it please the Court.
This lawsuit comes before the Supreme Court of the United States in this way.
The plaintiff below and the petitioner here started her lawsuit in the North Dakota District Court back in 1956.
And in her complaint, she alleged that her husband was accidentally killed by gunshot wounds on January 20, 1955.
She alleged that at the time of his death, and for many years before his death, he had two different life insurance policies with the New York Life Insurance Company that doubled for accidental death, and she asked for $15,000 on these policies.
The New York Life Insurance Company, because more than $3000 was involved and because there was a diversity of citizenship, removed the case to the Federal District Court in North Dakota.
They interposed in answer in which they set up as an affirmative defense their conclusion that Mr. Dick, the husband of the plaintiff, had died by his own hand intensionally and that his death was a suicide.
The lawsuit was tried before a jury in Fargo and the jury returned the verdict in favor of Mrs. Dick, and held in effect that the death was accidental.
The attorney for the New York Life Insurance Company moved for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
There were extensive arguments before the trial court and the trial judge immediately denied both of those motions.
The New York Life Insurance Company then appealed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals and the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, by a unanimous judgment, held that because two shots were fired in connection with this man's death that the death had to be suicidal and they ordered judgment for the New York Life Insurance Company.
Philip B. Vogel:
Yes, he is, Your Honor.
That is how the lawsuit came before the Supreme Court.
We asked for certiorari and certiorari was granted last summer.
Now, these are the facts that are justified by the record.
They are facts that are not contradicted or, as I say, they are justified by the record.
Mr. Dick, at the time of his death, was a man of 47 years.
He was a strong healthy man who had no troubles of any kind with his family.
He was respected by his neighbors and by his friends.
He owned a section of land near Lisbon, North Dakota and farmed it himself.
His land was free of all incumbrances.
He had about $1000 in the bank.
He had had no trouble with his family, with his neighbors or with his friends.
He did have some prostate trouble.
He had been treated by that, but the testimony was, that it was a matter of very little consequence.
On the night before he died, he sat down with his wife and his 14-year-old daughter and went over with the daughter her general science lessons explaining to her for an hour the workings of a transformer.
He went to bed that night and slept soundly.
The next morning, he got up and ate a hearty breakfast and backed the car out of the garage, so that his wife could take the little girl to the country school.