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Breunig v. American Family Insurance Co


    Citation. Breunig v. American Family Ins. Co., 45 Wis. 2d 536, 173 N.W.2d 619, 1970 Wisc. LEXIS 1138, 49 A.L.R.3d 179 (Wis. 1970)

    Brief Fact Summary. Erma Veith, an insured of American Family Insurance Company (Defendant), became involved in an automobile accident with (Plaintiff) when she was suddenly seized with a mental delusion. The jury awarded Defendant $7,000 in damages.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Not all types of insanity are a defense to a charge of negligence.

    Facts. Veith, an insured of Defendant, was driving her car when it struck a car driven by Plaintiff. Veith’s car veered across the center of the road and into Plaintiff’s lane. Defendant claimed Veith was not negligent because just prior to the collision she suddenly and without warning was seized with a mental delusion which rendered her unable to operate the car with her conscious mind. Veith told her psychiatrist that she was driving when she believed that God was taking a hold of the steering wheel and was directing her car. She saw the truck coming and stepped on the gas in order to become air borne because she knew she could fly because she thought she could fly like Batman. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff because they found that Veith had knowledge and forewarning of her mental delusions. More specifically, the court, despite the testimony of the psychiatrist, found that Veith had knowledge of her condition due to her past conduct. Therefore, the question was properl
    y left for the jury. Defendant, insurance company, appealed.

    Issue. Did Veith have foreknowledge of her susceptibility to a mental delusion as to make her negligent in driving a car?

    Held. Yes. Judgment for Plaintiff affirmed.
    * The general policy for holding an insane person liable for his torts is stated as follows:
    i. When one of two innocent persons must suffer a loss it should be borne by the one who occasioned it;
    ii. To induce those interested in the estate of the insane person to restrain and control him; and,
    iii. To stop false claims of insanity to avoid liability
    * However, not all types of insanity vitiate responsibility for a negligent tort. The effect of the mental illness or mental disorder must be such as to affect the person’s ability to understand and appreciate the duty, which rests upon him to drive his car with ordinary care. In addition, there must be an absence of notice or forewarning to the insane person that he may suddenly be unable to drive his car.
    * All we hold is that a sudden mental incapacity equivalent in its effect to such physical causes as a sudden heart attack, epileptic seizure, stroke, or fainting should be treated alike and not under the general rule of insanity.
    * In this case, the jury could infer that Veith had knowledge of her condition and the likelihood of her condition, just as one who has knowledge of a heart condition knows the possibility of an attack.

    Discussion. In this case, the court applied an objective standard of care to Defendant, an insane person. To avoid liability under this statute, there must be an absence of forewarning to the defendant that he or she would be subject to a debilitating mental illness. This court also held that persons who suffer from sudden mental incapacity due to sudden heart attack, epileptic seizure, stroke, or fainting should not be judged under the same objective test as those who are insane.

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