Citation. Breunig v. American Family Ins. Co., 45 Wis. 2d 536, 173 N.W.2d 619, 49 A.L.R.3d 179 (Wis. 1970)
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Plaintiff, Breunig (Plaintiff), was injured in a car accident when Erma Veith (Ms. Veith), the Defendant, American Family Ins. Co.’s (Defendant) insured, drove her car into the Plaintiff’s truck after suffering a schizophrenic attack.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
It is unjust to hold a person to a reasonable person standard in evaluating their negligence when a mental illness comes on suddenly and without forewarning causing injury to another.
Ms. Veith was driving home when she saw a white light on the back of the car ahead of her and followed it for three or four blocks. The next thing she recalled she was lying in a field on the side of the road. At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Ms. Veith told him that she believed God took control of the car and she stepped on the gas when she saw the Plaintiff’s truck coming towards her because she knew she would become airborne. The psychiatrist testified that while driving her car, Ms. Veith was not able to operate the vehicle with a conscious mind because she suffered from a schizophrenic reaction of which she had no forewarning.
Whether mental illness is an exception to the reasonable person standard.
Although generally insanity is not a defense to negligence, when the insanity is unforeseen and unavoidable, it is unjust to hold a person responsible for the conduct that caused the injury.
The effect of mental illness on liability depends on the nature of the insanity. The illness or hallucination must affect the person’s ability to understand and act with ordinary care. For insanity to be an exception to liability, there must also be an absence of notice or forewarning that the person might be subject to the illness or insanity. In situations where the insanity or illness is known, liability attaches. But in this case, where the driver was suddenly overcome by a disability that incapacitated her from conforming her conduct to that of a reasonable person, the general policy is too broad. It is unjust to hold a person responsible for conduct that they are incapable of avoiding.