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Minnesota cases reflect ‘Great War’ centenary

“The world made safe for democracy.”

President Woodrow Wilson (April 2, 1917)

There is hardly a soul alive today who recalls the entry of the United States into World War I, whose 100th anniversary will occur next week, on Thursday, April 6.

There are more than 72,000 centenarians, 82 percent of them women, in the United States, an increase of 44 percent since 2000. Minnesota has more than its share, in excess of 1,200, representing 0.2 percent of the state population, about one-third above the national average of 0.17 percent of the populace.

But only those few who are about 106 or older are of the age to remember the onset of America’s involvement in what was then termed the Great War, which ultimately claimed about 125,000 American deaths and 200,000-plus wounded militia, including 5,000 Minnesotans who were killed by the monumental postwar influenza epidemic.

But one need not be a centenarian to recall the legal remnants of that conflict as World War I left its mark on Minnesota jurisprudence in many ways. The war created a rich body of case law in Minnesota, ranging from First Amendment freedom-of-expression cases that reached the Supreme Court to business and commercial disputes.

The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I provides an opportune occasion to examine some of the ways that it affected litigants, lawyers and the law in this state.

Supreme suits

A whole body of First Amendment law, including the famous “clear and present danger” concept first articulated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) and later adopted as a standard in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972), stems from World War I. Two anti-war protest cases arose in Minnesota and made it all of the way to the high court.

In Arver v. U.S., 245 U.S. 366 (1918), four men from Minnesota appealed a decision of the federal court here upholding the Selective Draft Act, enacted by Congress the year before the country’s entry into the war.

The challengers were grouped together with some men from other jurisdictions in what was commonly referred to as the Selective Draft Law cases, raising a number of constitutional issues, including imposition of slavery or involuntary servitude under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution and infringement upon the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

But the Supreme Court rejected their arguments, holding that the measure was properly within the scope of congressional power to raise and support armies. The duty to register for the draft, as adopted by Congress, was “the highest duty of the citizen … [and] is inherent in citizenship.”

The Arver case formed the basis for subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court, including proscribing draft-card burning in U.S. v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968) and upholding the male-only draft requirements in Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 (1981).

It also underlay the high court ruling upholding a federal law disqualifying men who fail to register for the draft from federal scholarships in Selective Service System v. MPIRG, (1984), overturning a decision of U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsop in Minnesota that deemed the measure unconstitutional.

A Minnesota statute making it unlawful to interfere with or discourage enlistment of men in military forces was upheld in the face of a First Amendment challenge in Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 U.S. 325 (1920). The case was brought before the Supreme Court by an anti-war protester from Goodhue County who was convicted for violating a Minnesota measure that made it unlawful “to interfere or discourage enlistment of men in the military and naval forces of the country.”

Following affirmance by the Minnesota Supreme Court, 141 Minn. 263, 169 N.W. 790 (1918), the Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge, noting that the state law is “a simple exertion of the police power to preserve the peace of the State.”

The Arver and Gilbert cases were among a number of other post-WWI rulings of the Minnesota Supreme Court that addressed the actions of war protesters. Most of these upheld the various statutes and governmental actions taken against the objectors.

They include the following: E.g., State v. Hartung, 147 Minn. 128, 179N.W. 646 (Minn. 1920) (conviction upheld under state sedition law for telling Red Cross worker that the organization was working for “the wrong side”); State v. Holm, 139 Minn. 267, 166 N.W. 181 (Minn. 1918) (conviction upheld for distributing anti-war pamphlets). But see State v. Rempel143 Minn. 50, 172 N.W. 888 (Minn. 1990) (conviction for discouraging enlistment reversed because antiwar conversation was between two individuals sharing same sentiment).

A civil suit arising out of suspected war disloyalty was addressed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Meints v. Huntington, 276 F. 245 (8th Cir. 1921). The case was brought by a man who was assaulted, tarred and feathered, and run out of Luverne because he was believed to be unsupportive of the war effort.

A lengthy trial resulted in a ruling by the U.S. District Court in favor of the defendants, but the 8th Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial on grounds that the “defense of justification” was inappropriately allowed to be raised at trial, even though the belligerence against the claimant was “a wanton violation of [his] rights.”

Insurance issues

The lingering effects of the war were addressed more than a decade after it ended by 8th Circuit cases concerning insurance benefits for military personnel, interpreting the War Risk Insurance Act, a measure passed by Congress in 1914, three years before the United States’ entry into the war, to cover military personnel and their beneficiaries.

In Stephens v. United States, 29 F.2d. 904 (8th Cir. 1928), a Minnesota war veteran, who sustained a leg injury while in the Navy during the war, allowed his policy to lapse due to nonpayment of premiums, and he subsequently sought reinstatement of the policy and later became totally and permanently disabled.

The 8th Circuit affirmed a ruling of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota that the disability insurance only extended from the date of the reinstatement because retroactive coverage, after the policy had lapsed, “would open an avenue to fraud and imposition and greatly embarrass the administration of the law.”

Several 8th Circuit cases, all decided during the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, involved related issues: whether deaths of the veterans, attributable to injuries during the war, were covered by policies that had lapsed due to nonpayment of premiums after the War ended.

In United States v. LeDuc, 48 F.2d 789 (8th Cir. 1931), the 8th Circuit reviewed a lower court decision dismissing a case brought by the family of a Minnesotan who died from tuberculosis seven years after being discharged from military service. The appellate court held that the family was entitled to a new trial to determine whether the veteran was “totally and permanently disabled” at the time of his discharge, which would keep the policy in force through the time of his death, even though his premium payments lapsed.

Similarly in McNally v. United States, 52 F.2d 440 (8th Cir. 1931), a veteran, shot through the chest in the war, developed tuberculosis while in the service, and died nine years later obtained remand of dismissal of his insurance claim for determination of whether he was “totally and permanently disabled while policy was still in effect.”

But a different result was reached in Eggen v. United States, 58 F.2d 616 (8th Cir. 1932), which also involved a war veteran’s death from tuberculosis, attributable to a wartime injury. Upholding the lower court’s dismissal of the case, the 8th Circuit held that there was insufficient evidence that the veteran, although totally disabled, was “permanently disabled” at the time the policy lapsed when he left the service and ceased paying premiums.

Similarly, in Proechel v. United States, 59 F.2d 648 (8th Cir. 1932), the mother of a deceased veteran was unable to recover death benefits under a war-risk insurance policy following her son’s death, which occurred three years after he left the service. The veteran’s disabling arthritis, which stemmed from gonorrhea, was not the type of “total disability” that would invoke coverage under the insurance policy.

Fire fights

After the federal government took over much of the nation’s railroad system in 1918 to facilitate moving war-related materials, devastating forest fires in northeastern Minnesota in mid-October, 1918, about a month before the war ended, this destroyed nearly 2,000 square miles of forest and resulted in $40 million property damage while claiming the lives of about 500 people.

Litigation in Hall v. Davis, 150 Minn. 35, 184 N.W. 25 (1921) was nearly as sprawling as the fire itself, consolidating 278 claims against the director-general of the railroads for the negligent setting of a fire by a locomotive and allowing a fire to escape while within the control of the railroad running from Cloquet northwesterly to Floodwood.

A ruling by the St. Louis County District Court in favor of the landowners was affirmed on grounds that the “fire negligently allowed to escape from the locomotive … spread to and caused the destruction” of the properties involved in the litigation. Thus, the rulings made by four lower court judges were upheld and damages awarded to the property owners.

A pair of fire-related wrongful-death actions had unusual twists. In Granquist v. DuluthM. & N. Ry. Co., 155 Minn. 217, 193 N.W. 126 (1923), the widow of a man who was killed in the fire sued a railway company, which was under federal control during the war, two railways that were not under federal control, and two lumber companies.

More than four years later, she sought to amend the complaint to include a claim against another railway carrier. The St. Louis County District Court dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that it was untimely under the then-existing four-year statute of limitations, and the state Supreme Court affirmed.

Although they tried to organize the railroads into a “unified national system” during the war, each of the railroads continued to be “active, responsible parties, answerable for their own wrongs.” Therefore, suit against the original respondent railroads did not toll the statute of limitations as to a different railroad, which was untimely sued after expiration of the statute of limitations.

But the family of a woman who was killed in the fire was entitled to seek wrongful death damages two decades after earlier claims had been settled for $400 in United States v. City National Bank31 F. Supp. 530 (D. Minn. 1939). The case turned on whether a law passed by Congress in 1935, that allowed recovery of damages resulting from the fire, applied.

The court held that Congress intended its measure to allow compensation for “all who suffered loss of whatsoever character to receive payments.” Therefore, the earlier settlement, which covered only property damage, did not bar wrongful death damages under the subsequent measure.

Business battles

A number of businesses battled it out in the Minnesota courts over issues relating to World War I.

In Watkins v. W.E. Neiler Co., 135 Minn. 343, 160 N.W. 864 (1917), an Oklahoma banker vacationing in Osakis, anticipating a rise in the price of food products because of the war then raging in Europe, instructed his broker in Minnesota to purchase pork “on the open market on margin.” After pork prices fell, the district court rendered a nominal verdict of $31.25 for the dissatisfied investor, and the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed. Because the investor “knew that the market was uncertain and fluctuated rapidly,” the broker was not liable for negligence.

The effect of the war on the economy also was central to a dispute over gas sold by a utility to the city of Minneapolis in Minneapolis Gas Light Co. v. Minneapolis, 140 Minn. 400, 168 N.W. 588 (1918), which was brought by a utility that had agreed to a fixed price for the sale of gas in April 1914, shortly before the war began.

The company sought modification of the arrangement due to increased costs of producing gas because of the war. The Supreme Court, upholding a decision of the Hennepin County District Court, ruled that it constituted a “valid contract which … could not [be] set aside merely because subsequent conditions made the terms thereof burdensome to one of the parties.”

In Corliss v. U.S., 7 F.2d 455 (8th Cir. 1925), the operator of a Nebraska creamery that purchased and sold milk in Minnesota was convicted of criminal fraud for making false representations regarding the creamery’s sale of stock to finance expansion of their business to meet the high demand for condensed milk during the war.

The 8th Circuit reversed on grounds that the officers of the company “were justified in the belief that the future of the company was assured” because of the high demand for their creamery products due to the war and had reason to believe that they would be able, “like … other war industries, to enlarge business, and … [realize] large profits.”

These cases reflect some of the Minnesota litigation attributable to issues and events surrounding World War I. As Minnesotans and the rest of the nation mark the centennial of America’s involvement in that conflict, they should be aware of its contribution to the development of jurisprudence in this jurisdiction.


Military fatalities of some nations in World War I:

  • Russia: 7 million
  • Germany: 7 million
  • France: 3 million
  • Great Britain & Empire: 908,000
  • USA: 125,000

This article was originally published in Minnesota Lawyer