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Death of a Salesman: 1890s Version

Image result for death of a salesman poster

If you've actually looked down here at the body of this blog entry after that headline, congratulations on possessing a baroque sense of curiosity.

In 1898 the U.S. Supreme Court considered Ritter v. Mutual Life Ins. Co.  The case arose because a fellow named William M. Runk, a Philadelphia businessman, and an insured of the respondent, had shot and killed himself six years before.

Runk was a partner in a dry-goods firm. Not perhaps directly involved in sales, but what little I know of his death reminds me of Arthur Miller's character.  Also, a minor character in the Miller play was about to argue a case of indefinite nature before the Supreme Court, so perhaps Miller was shyly suggesting he knew about Ritter.

In this case, and usually in the 1890s, the insured's insurance policy contained no express exclusion for cases of suicide. The law as interpreted by a trial judge held that a sane man's suicide does not warrant an insurance company pay-out, but an insane man's suicide does. The idea, presumably, was that the sane fellow might be tempted into suicide by a businesslike calculation of his family's coming gain from the proceeds versus their continued troubles in the event of this sane-but-hard-pressed fellow's continued living presence among them. The insane are neither tempted into suicide in this way nor deterred from it by a contrary rule of law, so their suicide can occasion pay-outs without offense to a pro-life public policy.

Runk's suicide was of the death-of-a-salesman sort. He owed a lot of money, had speculated using embezzled funds and lost those funds in the market, etc. He left a suicide note asking that the insurance funds be employed to pay those whom he had cheated. Of course that suicide note has no consequences for his beneficiary, but the question was: should the beneficiary get anything? Was Runk sane or insane?

The jury found that he was sane and that the insurance company was not liable. The matter was appealed to the US Supreme Court. This was in the era before ERIE v. TOMPKINS, when the federal courts including the Supreme Court decided a lot of "common law" questions such as matters of contract interpretation that they and it would later forfeit.

Anyway, the matter went to the Supreme Court and the court, in an opinion by the first Justice Harlan, upheld the trial court judgment. It explicitly affirmed the principle that in the absence of explicit mention in the contract, the rule is that a sane suicide is a defense against insurance company liability.

Harlan wrote that insurance premiums are typically determined by actuarial tables, and that those tables show at any time the probable duration of life. This arrangement suggests, then, that the insured "will leave the event of his death to depend upon some other cause than willful, deliberate self-destruction."

Okay, that phrase isn't as resonant as "the Constitution is color-blind." But it is clear and emphatic. Harlan knew how to be so.    


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