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Semmes v. Hartford Insurance Company, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 158 158 (1871)

Semmes v. Hartford Insurance Company

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 158


1. A condition in a contract of insurance that no suit or action shall be sustainable unless commenced within the time of twelve mouths next after the loss shall occur, and in case such action shall be commenced after the expiration of twelve months next after such loss, that the lapse of time shall be taken and deemed as conclusive evidence against the validity of the claim, does not operate in case of a war between the countries of the contracting parties, as does a statute of limitations in like case. And under such a contract, the term of twelve months, which it allowed the plaintiff for bringing his suit, does not, as it does in the case of a statute of limitation, open and expand itself so as to receive within it the term of legal disability created by the war and then close together at each end of that period so as to complete itself as though the war had never occurred.

2. However, in the case of such a contract followed by a war, the disability to sue imposed on a plaintiff by the war relieves him from the consequences of failing to bring suit within twelve months after the loss.

Semmes sued the City Fire Insurance Company, of Hartford, in the court below, on the 31st of October, 1866, upon a policy of insurance, for a loss which occurred on the 5th day of January, 1860. The policy as declared on showed as a condition of the contract that payment of losses should be made in sixty days after the loss should have been ascertained and proved.

The company pleaded that by the policy itself it was expressly provided that no suit for the recovery of any claim

Page 80 U. S. 159

upon the same should be sustainable in any court unless such suit should be commenced within the term of twelve months next after any loss or damage should occur, and that in case any such suit should be commenced after the expiration of twelve months next after such loss or damage should have occurred, the lapse of time should be taken and deemed as conclusive evidence against the validity of the claim thereby so attempted to be enforced. And that the plaintiff did not commence this action against the defendants within the said period of twelve months next after the loss occurred.

To this plea there were replications setting up, among other things, that the late civil war prevented the bringing of the suit within the twelve months provided in the condition, the plaintiff being a resident and citizen of the State of Mississippi and the defendant of Connecticut during all that time.

The plea was held by the court below to present a good bar to the action, notwithstanding the effect of the war on the rights of the parties.

That court, in arriving at this conclusion, held first that the condition in the contract limiting the time within which suit could be brought was, like the statute of limitation, susceptible of such enlargement in point of time as was necessary to accommodate itself to the precise number of days during which the plaintiff was prevented from bringing suit by the existence of the war, and ascertaining this by a reference to certain public acts of the political departments of the government, to which it referred, found that there was, between the time at which it fixed the commencement of the war and the date of the plaintiff's loss, a certain number of days which, added to the time between the close of the war and the commencement of the action, amounted to more than the twelve months allowed by the condition of the contract.

Judgment being given accordingly in favor of the company, the plaintiff brought the case here.

The point chiefly discussed here was when the war began

Page 80 U. S. 160

and when it ceased, Mr. W. Hamersley, for the plaintiff in error, contending that the court below had not fixed right dates, but had fixed the commencement of the war too late and its close too early, and he himself fixing them in such a manner as that even conceding the principle asserted by the court to be a true one, and applicable to a contract as well as to a statute of limitation, the suit was still brought within the twelve months.

The counsel, however, denied that the principle did apply to a contract, but contended that the whole condition had been rendered impossible, and so abrogated by the war, and that the plaintiff could sue at any time within the general statutory term, as he now confessedly did.

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