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The Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company of California v. Young

Supreme Court of Arizona

March 21, 1932


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of the County of Pima. Albert M. Sames, Judge. Judgment reversed and the cause remanded, with directions that plaintiff's complaint be dismissed.

Messrs. Kingan, Darnell & Nave, for Appellant.

Mr. Louis G. Hummel, for Appellee.


[40 Ariz. 2] ROSS, J.

On April 13, 1928, Mannierre E. Young obtained a life policy for $10,000 and on May 7th another a life policy for $5,000 from the defendant, the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company of California, in both of which the plaintiff, his wife, Josephine S. A. Young was named beneficiary. He paid the first year's premiums on these policies, that on the former being $498.20 and on the latter $226.60. The insured died October 30, 1928. This suit was brought to collect the amount of the policies. These policies contained a promise to pay plaintiff, on receipt of proof of the death of the insured, the respective sums named, but, if insured should commit suicide within one year of the date of the policies, the liability thereon was limited to the premiums paid. The defendant in its answer tendered to plaintiff the amount of the premiums paid on these policies, and alleged that plaintiff had committed suicide within the first year. The trial was had before a jury and resulted in a verdict for plaintiff. The defendant has appealed from the judgment and an order overruling its motion for new trial, and its assignments of error raise the question of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the judgment; also [40 Ariz. 3] challenge a ruling on an instruction and the conduct of plaintiff's counsel in his argument to the jury.

There is no question but that the insured died from a dose of cyanide in solution which he swallowed. The plaintiff contends that it was administered the insured feloniously by some person or persons unknown or that the insured took it by mistake or accident thinking it a harmless powder and to induce sleep and allay nervousness and insomnia with which he had been afflicted for several months before his death. The defendant asserts that the evidence adduced at the trial showed that the insured took the cyanide intentionally and for the purpose of ending his life.

Under the contract contained in these life policies all the plaintiff was required to do to make a prima facie case entitling her to the insurance was to make proof of the death of the insured. If the defendant would defeat this prima facie case it must plead and prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the death of the insured resulted from a cause excepted from its contract liability.

We shall consider the case on its merits. If the evidence as to how the insured

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came to his death is in conflict, the jury's verdict in favor of the plaintiff is conclusive. By this we mean that, if there is any substantial evidence showing or tending to show that the insured was intentionally poisoned by some other person or persons, or that he by mistake took the cyanide believing it to be an innocent sleeping powder, the verdict found was justified and must not be disturbed. On the contrary, if the evidence, that of the plaintiff and of the defendant taken together, not only negatives accidental death and felonious homicide, but with reasonable certainty shows that the insured committed suicide, we cannot escape the duty of so declaring. That is, if the evidence is of such a nature that reasonable persons would have [40 Ariz. 4] to find the insured committed suicide, a verdict negativing suicide would have to be set aside.

In Equitable Life Assur. Soc. v. De Johnson, 36 Ariz. 428, 286 P. 817, where the defense was suicide, we said:

"The law applicable to cases of this nature may be stated as follows: Where the defense of suicide is set up in an action by a beneficiary on an insurance policy, the burden of proving that the deceased committed suicide is upon the defendant. In the absence of proof of the cause of death, the presumption is against suicide. These principles are supported fully by the adjudicated cases. In addition thereto, it is almost universally held that when circumstantial evidence is relied on, the defendant must establish facts which exclude any reasonable hypothesis of anything except suicide. . . . And in cases where either conclusion could be reached, the question is one for the jury. . . .

"On the other hand, there is a limit beyond which even a jury may not go, and that is the line of reasonable probability. If the evidence be such that there is no reasonable theory which can be deduced from the evidence -- even though there may be a possible or conjectural one not based on the testimony -- on which the jury may find the death was not the result of suicide, a verdict which negatives suicide cannot be sustained."

Bearing in mind the rules of law thus stated, we turn to the facts of the case to see if they sustain, when tested by these rules, the verdict of the jury. The insured was forty-nine years old, very proud and sensitive, a good talker, refined, intelligent, well read and well educated. Besides his wife his family consisted of two minor children, named as beneficiaries in case the wife should predecease him. At the time he took out the policies he resided at Sonoita, Santa Cruz county, Arizona, and was engaged in placer mining. He was a physician, had served as a prescription clerk in a drug-store in Tucson for six or [40 Ariz. 5] seven years, was familiar with cyanide, and could easily obtain it. He was in financial troubles. In May and June he overdrew at his bank, and quite a number of his checks were dishonored. In May and April he took out accident and life policies in the sum of $80,000, $30,000 with the defendant and $50,000 with the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee. He was at the time nervous and suffering from insomnia, which persisted up to the time of his death, according to the allegations of plaintiff's complaint. His wife and children were living with her father. Some time before the 12th of September he left Tucson, ostensibly for Colorado Springs and ...

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