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Winne et al. v. Niagara Fire Ins. Co.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York
Jan 23, 1883
91 N.Y. 185 (N.Y. 1883)


Argued December 13, 1882

Decided January 23, 1883

John J. Linson for appellant.

J. Newton Fiero for respondents.

The jury found that there was an unconditional agreement on the part of Fredenburgh, to reinsure to the amount of $1,000, and the claim of the defendant that there was no completed contract of insurance, rests upon the fact that the rate of premium and the duration of the risk, were not specified when the agreement was made. There can be no doubt that these are essential elements of a contract of insurance, and if there was no meeting of minds of the parties upon these particulars, the contract of insurance was not consummated, and the matter stood as a mere negotiation, incomplete, and imposing no obligation upon either party. The claim that there was no consensus of the parties upon these points, rests upon the fact that no words passed between them in respect to the time or rate of insurance, when the alleged contract was made. But this was unnecessary, provided the jury were authorized from the circumstances of the transaction, to infer that the parties intended that the new policy should be issued for the same time, and at the same rate of premium as the policy which had just expired. There was an express agreement as to the subject-matter of the insurance, the parties, the risk and the amount. The negotiation referred to a new insurance for $1,000 on the same building insured by the previous policy, and in the same company. In the absence of negative words, it is a reasonable inference that the parties also understood that the new insurance was to be for the same time and at the same rate of premium as the prior one, differing only in amount. The policy prepared by the agent after the negotiation for the new policy, specified the same rate of premium as the prior one, and was for the usual time of one year. We think the jury were authorized to find that the minds of the parties met as to all the essential terms of the contract, and that there was a completed contract of insurance between Fredenburgh and the plaintiff Henry W. Winne.

The remaining question on the merits, arises upon the defendant's claim that Fredenburgh had no authority to insure the Eagle Hotel property, and that this was known to Winne when the alleged contract was made. It is admitted that Fredenburgh was the general agent of the defendant at Kingston, at the time of the transaction. He was intrusted with blank forms of policies of the defendant, signed by its officers, and was authorized to bind the company by his contracts in the first instance, the company reserving the right to cancel policies issued by him, and terminate the risk. Under this general authority, Fredenburgh had insured the Eagle Hotel property in the defendant's company for several years, to the amount of $2,000, the last policy for that amount expiring July 1, 1876. The alleged limitation of his authority to insure the Eagle Hotel property, is contained in a paper called an "expiration sheet," sent by the company to Fredenburgh, according to its usual custom, showing the policies which would expire during the month ensuing that in which it was sent, and containing notations opposite each risk. The particular sheet now in question, was sent in June, 1876, and contained a list of seven policies, issued at his agency, which would expire in July. Opposite the policy on the Eagle Hotel property was the word "drop," and opposite the others the word "renew." Whether this expiration sheet was seen by Winne before he made the agreement with Fredenburgh for the policy now in question, was a subject of controversy on the trial. But assuming that it was exhibited to and read by Winne before that time, so that he is chargeable with notice of its contents, we are nevertheless of opinion that the language used was not equivalent to an absolute instruction to Fredenburgh not to insure the Eagle Hotel property for any amount, and that an insurance of the property by him for a smaller sum, was not prohibited.

The evidence tends to show, and the jury have found that the agent so interpreted the instruction. The prior policy was in fact dropped. The risk was reduced in amount. The agent prepared the new policy, directed it to be reported to the company, and it was entered by the clerk in the register of completed contracts. The word "drop" in the expiration sheet, to say the least, was ambiguous and equivocal, and the principle applies that a letter of instruction from a principal to an agent, should be expressed in clear language, and that if not expressed in "plain and unequivocal terms, but the language is fairly susceptible of different interpretations, and the agent in fact is misled and adopts and follows one, while the principal intended another, then the principal will be bound, and the agent will be exonerated." (Story on Agency, § 74. See, also, Herrman v. Merchants' Ins. Co., 81 N.Y. 188; 37 Am. Rep. 488.) In the absence of special limitation, the authority of Fredenburgh to make the contract in question is unquestionable. The limitation proved, simply prohibited the renewal of the existing risk, or an equivalent insurance. Winne had a right to put this interpretation upon the instruction. If the company intended to decline any insurance on the property, it should have said so. It cannot in justice defeat the contract in question by putting an interpretation upon its instructions, at variance with that of its agent and Winne, and of which the language was clearly capable.

The remaining question is whether a joint action lies in favor of the plaintiffs. The plaintiff Henry W. Winne was the owner of the property insured, and the plaintiff Benjamin J. Winne was mortgagee. The policy contains the clause, "loss, if any, payable to Benj. J. Winne, to the extent of his mortgage interest therein." We think a joint action is proper. The plaintiffs have a common interest in enforcing the contract. The plaintiff Henry W. Winne has no adverse interest to that of his co-plaintiff. The fund is applicable, first upon the mortgage debt, and when that is paid, the balance belongs to the mortgagor. It is we think quite appropriate, and in accord with the flexible rule of procedure now applied in courts of justice, to allow persons situated as are the plaintiffs, to unite in maintaining the action, and the practice is sanctioned by the language of the Code, and of adjudged cases. (Code, § 466; Boynton v. Clinton, etc., Ins. Co., 16 Barb. 254; Ennis v. Harmony F. Ins. Co., 3 Bosw. 516; Lasher v. North Western Ins. Co., 18 Hun, 101.)

We find no error in the record, and the judgment should therefore be affirmed.

All concur.

Judgment affirmed.

Summaries of

Winne et al. v. Niagara Fire Ins. Co.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York
Jan 23, 1883
91 N.Y. 185 (N.Y. 1883)
Case details for

Winne et al. v. Niagara Fire Ins. Co.

Case Details

Full title:HENRY W. WINNE et al., Respondents, v . THE NIAGARA FIRE INSURANCE…

Court:Court of Appeals of the State of New York

Date published: Jan 23, 1883


91 N.Y. 185 (N.Y. 1883)

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