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Cornish v.

The
Accident Insurance
Company, Limited
(1889) 23 Q.B.D. 453

-Shivani S. Mane
2014/B.A.LL.B/025
Outline of the Case
• This appeal from the judgment of Lord Coleridge,
C.J., at the trial with a jury was brought by the legal
personal representative of the late Richard Cornish
to recover the sum of amount for which he had
effected a policy with the defendants.

• The case was decided by Lord Esher, M.R. Lindley,


and Bowen, L.JJ. [Court of Appeal (England and
Wales)]
Facts of the Case
• Mr. Cornish was a farmer. His farm was intersected
by a railway track, which he habitually crossed.

• But in July 1887, The insured was killed by a train


while attempting to cross the railway line in
circumstances that made it difficult to understand
how he could not have seen or heard the train
approaching.

• A policy covered the insured against accidental


death or injury but excluded injuries happening by
exposure of the insured to obvious risk of injury.
Issue Raised

• Whether Mr. Cornish had exposed


himself to an obvious risk of injury within
the meaning of the policy?
Lord Coleridge’s
judgment
• The Lord Chief Justice directed the jury that the
case fell within the exception in the policy, the
accident having happened through the insured
exposing himself to obvious risk; and the jury
thereupon returned a verdict to the effect that they
were compelled by the ruling of the Lord Chief
Justice to find that the deceased lost his life by
incurring obvious risk, but that they were of opinion
that he was killed by accident which was an
ordinary misadventure.
Defendant’s Arguments
• The insurance policy had an exception from risks
insured against cases of death happening by “the
exposure of the insured to obvious risk of injury”.

• An obvious risk is a risk which any one of ordinary


sense could see to be a risk, if he took ordinary
care.

• “Obvious” includes what a man ought to have


seen.
• Defendant’s Arguments

• If the test were what was in fact obvious to that


particular man, all kinds of difficulty will arise.

• It is an obvious danger to step on to a main line of


rails on which trains are constantly passing without
looking up and down to see if a train is coming.

• Thus, they should not be liable on the policy.


Plaintiff’s Arguments
• The exception does not contemplate the mere
case of a person negligently exposing himself to a
risk which he fails to perceive.

• There was nothing in the policy to show that the


insured willfully or voluntarily exposed himself to a
risk of which he was aware, though he may have
been negligent.
• The scope of such a policy is to insure a man against
his own carelessness or thoughtlessness as much as
any other dangers. In order to come within the
exception there must be an intention to run a risk.
Decision
• The contract should not be construed in a way that
would make it practically illusory and in a case of
real ambiguity the court should lean in favour of the
insured. However, the court warned against
creating doubts or magnifying ambiguities in order
to reach a decision in favour of the insured.
• ‘The words ‘exposure of the insured to obvious risk
of injury’ suggest the following questions:
- Exposure by whom?
- Obvious when?
- Obvious to whom?
Decision
• The words are very general. There is no such word
as ‘wilful,’ or ‘reckless,’ or ‘careless’; and to
ascertain the true meaning of the exception the
whole document must be studied and the object of
the parties to it must be steadily borne in mind.
• The object of the contract is to insure against
accidental death and injuries, and the contract
must not be construed so as to defeat that object,
nor so as to render it practically illusory.
Decision
• A man who crosses an ordinary crowded street is
exposed to obvious risk of injury; and, if the words in
question are construed literally, the defendants
would not be liable in the event of an insured being
killed or injured in so crossing, even if he was taking
reasonable care of himself.
• Such a result is so manifestly contrary to the real
intention of the parties that a construction which
leads to it ought to be rejected. So some
qualification must be put on the words used.
Decision
• The real difficulty is to express the necessary
qualification with which the words must be taken.
• In a case on the line, in a case of real doubt, the
policy ought to be construed most strongly against
the insurers; they frame the policy and insert the
exceptions.
• But this principle should only to be applied for the
purpose of removing a doubt, not for the purpose of
creating a doubt, or magnifying an ambiguity,
when the circumstances of the case raise no real
difficulty
Decision
Two classes of accidents are excluded from the risks
insured against, viz.
(1) accidents which arise from an exposure by the
insured to risk of injury, which risk is obvious to him
at the time he exposes himself to it;
(2) accidents which arise from an exposure by the
insured to risk of injury, which risk would be obvious
to him at the time, if he were paying reasonable
attention to what he was doing.
Decision

• “We accept the view of the jury that this accident


may be called an ordinary misadventure, but the
question is whether the policy covers it. We think
not. We are not prepared to say that injuries
occasioned by the negligence of the insured are in
all cases excepted.”
Decision
• “In the present case the deceased did in fact
expose himself to risk of imminent death: that is
quite clear. If he looked and saw the train coming,
the risk to which he exposed himself must have
been obvious to him at the time.
• If the risk to which he exposed himself was not then
obvious to him, that circumstance can only be
accounted for on the supposition that he was not
attending to what he was doing, i.e. not looking to
see if a train was coming, and was near. We cannot
construe the policy as covering a risk so run”
Fin.