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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published August 15 2010

Halgrimson: Ransom County gunshot case went to Supreme Court

On Jan. 20, 1955, 47-year-old Ransom County farmer William Dick died of two gunshot wounds, one to his chest and another to his head. A coroner’s jury later determined the death to be a suicide.

Dick’s widow, Blanche, was not satisfied with that decision, partly because his life insurance policy, with New York Life, provided for double indemnity in case of accidental death, and Mrs. Dick was certain her husband had not committed suicide. She sought legal counsel from Lisbon attorney and state legislator Don Holand.

Holand thought the case was impossible until he visited the Dicks’ farmstead. Dick kept a loaded shotgun in the barn to protect his livestock from animal attacks. Holand thought Dick might have been carrying the gun by the barrel and in his hurry had banged the gun against the doorjamb, causing the gun to discharge the first shot to his chest. The second shot to his head came when the gun hit the floor.

Holand had the coroner’s jury’s verdict voided, and Dick’s widow sued New York Life in North Dakota district court, claiming the death was accidental. Counsel for the insurance company, Fargo attorney Norman Tenneson, removed the case to federal district court.

At this point, Holand, who had never tried a federal case, asked Fargo attorney Philip Vogel for assistance. Vogel believed in the rightness of Blanche Dick’s claim and joined Holand in the case.

Federal Judge Ronald Davies presided in Fargo in 1957. Holand demonstrated his suppositions to the jury, and they found that Dick’s death was an accident. New York Life was liable for the double indemnity clause.

Tenneson appealed the case to the 8th Circuit Court as the representative of the insurance company and a panel of three jurists heard the case and reversed the findings of the lower court saying, “One can believe that even an experienced hunter might accidentally shoot himself once. But the asserted theory that he could accidentally shoot himself first with one barrel and then with the other stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.”

And the panel went on and on. Holand and Vogel felt that the 8th Circuit decision considered the North Dakota law but did not apply it. Vogel drafted a writ of certiorari, which is petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. On June 23, 1958, the Supreme Court granted the writ.

Vogel, Holand and Tenneson traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1959. When asked about the shotgun, Blanche Dick’s side claimed it had a defect and brought it to the justices. He was later informed by U.S. Marshals that lawyers don’t bring exhibits to the court but present them to the marshals.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion, which reversed the 8th District Court judgment. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the dissent, saying the court should not take trivial cases and adding that the Dick case would “set no precedents. It will guide no lawyers. It will guide no courts.” But courts have cited the case 150 times, including 21 citations in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal Appeals Judge, Myron Bright of Fargo, whose story about the Dick case appeared in the Supreme Court Historical Society’s publication on the 50th anniversary of the case, says, “The enduring legal importance of Dick is probably its acknowledgement of the central role of the jury in our judicial system. … A wrong was righted.”

The information in this column comes from Judge Bright’s story “The Case of William Dick: Ransom County North Dakota,” with assistance from Fargo attorney John Boulger.