Double Indemnity

 

HARTENSTEIN v. NEW YORK LIFE INSURANCE CO.

113 N.E.2d 712 (Ohio Ct. App. 1952)

Mrs. Irma L. Hartenstein, as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy issued upon the life of her husband, Alfred D. Hartenstein, sued the New York Life Insurance Company to recover double indemnity provided for in the policy for death ... from bodily injury effected solely through external, violent and accidental means [but not from suicide].

[Plaintiff alleged that on November 16 her husband was in his car at a railroad crossing and was struck and killed by a locomotive. The insurance company claimed that the husband committed suicide.]

The testimony of the several persons who were near the scene of the tragedy and witnessed the conduct and activity of the insured was that the insured drove his automobile on an improved highway to a point several hundred feet from a well-marked main line, four-track railroad crossing and then parked for "fifteen or twenty minutes.'' ... Several automobiles at about this time came to the crossing and stopped to give way to a forty-car loaded Baltimore and Ohio freight train, which was approaching at a speed of approximately 40 miles an hour. While the warning lights were flashing, and the train's whistle was blowing, the insured drove his car away from its parked position, passed around the several automobiles ahead, which had been stopped for the train, hesitated momentarily at the boundary of the crossing, and then proceeded slowly to the track upon which the train was approaching, where the automobile came to a stop. In a "matter of seconds'' the inevitable collision occurred, and the insured was thrown from his car to the side of the tracks, while the train continued on through the crossing, carrying the automobile on the front of the engine. Death followed quickly. In addition to the warning signals, there is evidence that the train could be plainly seen in the broad light of the day by all who approached the crossing.

After introduction of the above evidence, the defendant moves for a nonsuit at the close of the plaintiff's case. Defendant argues that the evidence shows, as a matter of law, that the insured committed suicide. What ruling and why?

During the trial, additional evidence was offered to show that at the time of his death the insured was the secretary of a local lodge. As secretary he received dues, and it was his duty to deposit this money in a local bank. Several weeks before his death an annual audit of these funds was commenced by the lodge, and it was revealed that while the secretary's books showed $23,401.76 on hand, the reconciliation with the bank indicated $13,607.76 in the account. Should such evidence have been admitted? What is its relevance? Does its relevance require an inference to be piled on another inference?

Should there be a rule against piling an inference on an inference? If not, should each intermediate inference have to be established to some degree of certitude (e.g., a preponderance) before the evidence will be admitted?

 

At common law, many jurisdictions followed a rule that prohibited "an inference on an inference.'' Rhode Island, for example, prohibited "pyramiding of inferences,'' see Waldman v. Shipyard Marina, 102 R.I. 366, 230 A.2d 841 (1967), but in more recent years interpreted this to mean that "an inference may rest upon a prior inference that has been established to the exclusion of all other reasonable inferences.'' The defense in the Claus van Bulow attempted murder case, 475 A.2d 995 (R.I. 1984), cited the Rhode Island cases pronouncing this rule as the first cases in its appellate brief.

Does the codification of the rules of evidence (Rhode Island Rules 401-403 are virtually identical to the federal rules) abolish the "no inference on an inference'' rule and any similar rules that impose a threshold level of proof on an intermediate inference in a chain of inferences? Or does the discredited "no inference on an inference'' rule live on in a different form through strict application of the concept of conditional relevance in Rule 104(b)?



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