Bob Lind, Published December 09 2013
Neighbors: Tragedy leads to landmark Supreme Court case
William Dick, 47, headed out to feed the cattle and pigs, while his wife, Blanche, took their daughter, 14, to school.
Blanche came home, went to the silage shed to talk to her husband, and found a horrible sight. William was lying dead in a pool of blood. A double-barreled shotgun, which he kept loaded because of animal attacks on his livestock, was lying nearby.
The coroner found William had been hit by two shotgun shells. One entered his chest but wasn’t fatal, while the second entered his head, killing him instantly.
A coroner’s jury determined William’s death to be a suicide.
William carried a life insurance policy with New York Life with benefits of $7,500 upon his death, but $15,000 (double indemnity) for an accidental death. Blanche filed a claim for the $15,000, but the insurance company said it would pay only $7,500, since William’s death was a suicide.
And the groundwork was laid for a court battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Continuing the fight
Blanche decided to go to court in an attempt to obtain the additional funds, and hired Lisbon attorney and future North Dakota legislator Donald C. Holand to represent her.
Holand then asked Philip Vogel, a prominent Fargo trial lawyer, to jointly, with Holand, represent Blanche and the William Dick family.
This story was sent to Neighbors by Judge Myron Bright of Fargo, a highly honored senior U.S. Circuit Court judge, who, although not involved in this case, was a close friend of Holand and at the time, a law partner of Vogel.
The Holand and Bright families knew each other because they’d both settled in McKinley, Minn., after emigrating from Europe. Bright’s father came from Ukraine and his mother came from what now is Poland, while Holand’s family came from Sweden.
Judge Davies presiding
Holand theorized that William was carrying the shotgun by the barrel when he accidentally hit the gun against the shed’s door casing, causing the gun to fire the first shot into his chest. He fell and the gun fired again, fatally hitting him in the head, Holand believed.
Holand had the coroner’s jury verdict voided. Then, Blanche sued New York Life in the district court. The New York Life attorney had the case moved to federal district court in Fargo, where the presiding judge was Ronald Davies, of Little Rock, Ark., integration case fame.
The case was decided in that court in 1955. That jury decided William’s death was an accident, and found New York Life liable on the double-indemnity provision.
The insurance company lawyer appealed the case to a circuit court panel of judges. And that panel reversed the double-indemnity verdict, saying the shooting could not have been accidental.
It looked grim for Vogel and Holand, but they weren’t about to give up. They decided to try to get the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vogel drew up the petition, asking that that a writ of certiorari be granted, i.e., the writ from the lower court would be allowed to be studied by the higher court. On June 23, 1958, that request was granted.
The Supreme Court handed down its decision on May 18, 1959. Its opinion, drafted by Chief Justice Earl Warren, was that the circuit court decision was reversed, and the district court jury verdict and judgment should stand; that is, that William’s death was accidental. The result: Blanche Dick received the full $15,000.
Justice Felix Frankfurter disagreed with Warren, however, and in a dissent, said the case was of little importance and should not have been heard by the Supreme Court.
But Bright sharply disagrees. He says the Dick case has been cited about 150 times in the courts since then, including 21 times in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The enduring legal importance of the Dick case is probably its acknowledgement of the central role of the jury in our judicial system,” Bright says.
“Cases are not only about legal principles,” he says. “The Dick case’s legacy has a human component, too.
“For the family, the case provided justice and finality. A wrong was righted.
“For the lawyers, the case showed the importance of zealous advocacy, legal acumen and perseverance.
“The lawyers are now dead,” Bright says, “but their conduct in this case represents the quality of representation that the lawyers in North Dakota should aspire to for their own clients.
“Whether for its legal effect or its human effect,” he says, “Dick v. New York Life deserves our warm praise.”
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