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New York Life Ins. Co. v. Bennion.

: November 6, 1946.



Before HUXMAN and MURRAH, Circuit Judges, and BROADDUS, District Judge.

MURRAH, Circuit Judge.

The New York Life Insurance Company issued its policy of insurance to Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, providing for double indemnity for accidental death, but specifically excluding from its coverage, death resulting from "war or any act incident thereto." The policy is a Virginia contract, executed May 23, 1925. On account of the insured's occupation as a naval officer, an extra premium, equal to the normal charge for double indemnity benefits, was included in the total premium.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, Captain Bennion was in command of the Battleship West Virginia, at that time lying at anchor in the Harbor. While at his post of duty repelling the attack, he was killed soon after its commencement by a fragment of a Japanese bomb or shrapnel. The Company paid the face amount of the policy, but denied liability for double indemnity on the grounds that death resulted from war or an act incident thereto within the meaning of the policy. The trial court granted recovery, and the Company has appealed.

According to official reports,*fn1 250 or 300 Japanese bombing and torpedo planes took part in the attack, resulting in 3,435 American casualties; severe damage to or loss of 8 battleships, 3 light cruisers, 3 destroyers, 3 miscellaneous vessels, and 188 planes, as well as damage to land-based military installations. Japan suffered something less than 100 casualties, the loss of 29 planes, and 5 midget submarines. The event was one of the greatest military and naval disasters in our nation's history.When the attack was launched, we were not only at peace with Japan, but were actually engaged in a peace conference with her envoys. It was deliberately and strategically planned, and while recognized as a possibility in view of our strained relations, came as a complete surprise to our civil, military and naval authorities.

About one hour after the commencement of the attack (7:30 a.m. Honolulu time, 1:30 p.m. Washington time), the Japanese envoys in Washington delivered a note to our State Department informing our Government of the severance of diplomatic relations. The delivery of the note was intended to coincide with the attack as a part of Japan's prearranged war strategy. About three hours after the commencement of the attack, and while it was in progress, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters announced that war began as of "dawn" that date, meaning 7:30 a.m. Honolulu time. About eight hours still later (3:00 p.m. Honolulu time, 9:00 p.m. Washington time), the United States Embassy at Tokyo received a communication from the Japanese Foreign Minister, informing our Government that a state of war had arisen between the two countries "beginning today". President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress on the following day, December 8th, to request that Congress declare the existence of a state of war between the United States and the Japanese Empire. The Congress was informed that "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 * * * the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan". After detailing the course of events of the preceding day, the President asked the Congress to declare that "since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire." (See House Document 453, 77th Congress, 1st Session). The Congress responded by joint resolution "that the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared. * * *" The resolution was approved by the Presidnet and became effective December 8, 1941, at 4:10 p.m., Washington time. 55 Stat. 795, 50 U.S.C.A.Appendix, note preceding section 1.

No one denies the grim reality that the attack beginning December 7, 1941, at about 7:30 a.m. Honolulu time, marked the commencement of an armed conflict between two sovereign nations which ended only when the Japanese surrendered nearly four years later. Furthermore, it seems to be agreed that the existence or non-existence of a state of war is a political question, to be determined by the political department of our Government. The basic difference lies in the contention on the one hand that a formal declaration by the Congress, which alone has the constitutional power to declare and make war, is an essential prerequisite to judicial cognizance of its existence; and the contention on the other hand that the existence of a war is not dependent upon its formal declaration, but rather is determinable from an appraisal of actualities; that the formal declaration by Congress on the day after the attack was merely a formal recognition of that which was already actually in existence. Both contentions find very respectable support in the adjudicated cases. Since the contract was made in Virginia, its construction and effect are of course governed by Virginia law. But the Virginia courts have not spoken, and we therefore have the duty to determine what we conceive will be the law of Virginia when its courts do speak on the subject.

All of the cases which support the appellee involve the death of an insured resulting from the Pearl Harbor attack under contracts of insurance, containing either identical or similar words of exclusion as those under consideration here. They are bottomed on the concept that courts may not take judicial notice of the existence of a war until it is formally and officially declared by the Congress of the United States; that the parties contracted in contemplation of this rule of law and are bound by it. A valid distinction is drawn between an act of war and a state of war, and the attack of December 7th is characterized as an act of war, which did, but not necessarily, eventuate in a state of war. The Panay Incident on the Yangtze River in China is suggested as a comparable act of war which did not eventuate in a state of war. Then too, it is said, in accordance with the universal rule, that if the words used to express the intention of the parties in the contract are ambiguous or susceptible of two meanings, one of which will permit recovery and the other will not, it should be given a construction most favorable to the insured. West v. Palmetto State Life Ins. Co., 202 S.C. 422, 25 S.E.2d 475, 145 A.L.R. 1461; Rosenau v. Idaho Mutual Benefit Ass'n, 65 Idaho 408, 145 P.2d 277; Savage v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Conada, D.C., 57 F.Supp. 620; Gladys Ching Pang v. Sun Life Assur. Co., Supreme Court of the Territory of Hawaii, October Term, 1945.

The last cited case from the Territory of Hawaii calls attention to the joint resolution of Congress, approved December 8th, formally declaring war, and points to what it considers the significance of the failure of the Congress to comply with the President's request to declare that a state of war had existed since the "unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th." To show that the Congress could have, but did not recognize the existence of a state of war on December 7th, the court emphasized the difference between this resolution and the joint resolution of Congress formally declaring war on Spain on April 25, 1898, in which war was specifically declared to exist, and had existed since the 21st day of April, 1898. The court also cites and quotes from a treatise by Manley O. Hudson, 39 Harv.Law Review 1020, to the effect that for the purpose of municipal law, a state of war between the United States and Germany did not exist until its formal declaration by joint resolution of Congress on April 6, 1917, 40 Stat. 1, although the Congress was "perhaps competent" to give the declaration a retroactive effect in view of the many previous acts of war committed by Germany against the United States. This argument, of course, assumes the premise that the courts may not take notice of the existence of a state of war until it is formally declared by the Congress.

The authorities which support the contentions of the appellant also involve insurance contracts which are identical or similar to ours. Vanderbilt v. Travelers' Ins. Co., 112 Misc. 248, 184 N.Y.S. 54, 55, involved an insurance contract excluding from its coverage "death * * * resulting, directly or indirectly, wholly or partly, from * * * war or riot." The insured lost his life when a German submarine sank the British steamer Lusitania, on which he was a passenger. At that time a state of war existed between germany and Great Britain, but not between Germany and the United States. The court rejected the contention that the United States must have been at war with Germany in order to come within the language of the policy, holding that "'war' is every contention by force between two nations under the authority of their respective governments."

Stankus v. New York Life Ins. Co., 312 mass. 366, 44 N.E.2d 687, involved an insurance contract also issued by this appellant, containing identical words of exclusion. The insured, a seaman in the United States Navy, lost his life when the USS Ruben James was torpedoed by German submarines on October 30, 1941. At that time, Germany was at war with Great Britain, but at peace with the United States. In holding that the insured's death resulted from war or an act incident thereto, the court reasoned that the existence of a war was not dependent upon its formal declaration, but that any conflict between the armed forces of two nations under authority of their respective governments was commonly regarded as war. The attack on Pearl Harbor was cited as the latest illustration of war without formal declaration. Referring to the insurance contract, the court noted that the term war, as used therein, was not limited or restricted by anything appearing in the policy; that it referred to no particular type or kind of war, but applied in general to every situation that ordinary people would commonly regard as war, and should be so construed and enforced. In support of its definition of war, the Massachusetts court cited Bas v. Tingy, 4 Dall. 36, 37, 1 L. Ed. 731; The Prize Cases (The Amy Warwick), 2 Black 635, 17 L. Ed. 459; Montoya v. United States, 180 U.S. 261, 21 S. Ct. 358, 45 L. Ed. 521; Oetjen v. Central Leather Co., 246 U.S. 297, 38 S. Ct. 309, 62 L. Ed. 726; Hamilton v. McClaughry, 8 Cir., 136 F. 445; Gitlow v. Kiely, 2 Cir., 44 F.2d 227.

In the Prize cases, supra, after the outbreak in hostilities between the States, President Lincoln, on April 19 and 27, 1861, issued an executive proclamation extablishing a blockade of all Southern ports, and ordered the capture of all vessels violating the blockade. In pursuance of the proclamation, certain vessels belonging to foreign countries were captured and held as prizes of war. Congress was in recess at the time and had not acted upon the insurrection, and the question arose whether the vessels thus captured and held were war prizes under either municipal or international law. It was argued with great force and eloquence that since Congress alone was empowered to declare war, there could be no war cognizable in the courts without and until a legislative declaration thereof; that only the Congress could interrupt the otherwise peaceful commerce between friendly nations. In holding that the vessels seized under the executive proclamation were war prizes, the court recognized that Congress alone had the constitutional power to formally declare a national or foreign war, but it also affirmed the power of the President, as Commander and Chief of the army and navy, to use the military and naval forces of the United States in case of invasion by a foreign nation. Said the court, "If a war be made by invasion of a foreign nation, the President is not only authorized but bound to resist force, by force. He does not initiate the war, but is bound to accept the challenge without waiting for any special legislative authority. And whether the hostile party be a foreign invader, or States organized in rebellion, it is none the less a war, although the declaration of it be 'unilateral'". The court called attention to the historical fact that the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma had been fought before the passage of the act of Congress declaring war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, which recognized "a state of war as existing by the Act of the Republic of Mexico." 9 Stat. 9. And speaking of the commencement of the Civil War, the court used language which has singular application to our situation. "However long may have been its previous conception, it nevertheless sprung forth suddenly from the parent brain, a Minerva in the full panoply of war. The President was bound to meet it in the shape it presented itself, without waiting for Congress to baptize it with a name; and no name given to it by him or them could change the fact." And speaking of the province of the courts in a situation of this kind, the court said, "They cannot ask a court to affect a technical ignorance of the existence of a war, which all the world acknowledges to be the greatest civil war known in the history of the human race * * *." Thus, the court left no doubt that the executive proclamation was a political determination of a state of war, of which the courts were bound to take judicial cognizance.

When one sovereign nation attacks another with premeditated and deliberate intent to wage war against it, and that nation resists the attacks with all the force at its command, we have war in the grim sense of reality. It is war in the only sense that men know and understand it. Mankind goes no further in his definitive search - he does not stand on ceremony or wait for technical niceties. To say that courts must shut their eyes to realities and wait for formalities, is to cut off the power to reason with concrete facts. We cannot believe that the courts are deprived of the power to deal with this vital question in a practical and realistic sense.

Let us suppose that Congress was not in session on December 7th when the Japanese attacked, and could not convene for thirty days, therefore could not and did not formally declare or recognize a state of war until January 8, 1942. Meanwhile, the President, acting in his capacity as Commander and Chief of the armed forces, took all available measures, not only to repel the invasion, but waged, as we did, an offensive war at Midway and throughout the Pacific. And let us suppose that the insured here had been killed on January 7, 1942, in one of the many sea battles which raged over the Pacific immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. In these circumstances, it cannot be denied that the acts and conduct of the President, acting in furtherance of his constitutional authority and duty, would constitute a political determination of a state of war of which the courts would take judicial notice. We can discern no demonstrable difference in the supposition and ...

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