Breunig v. American Family Insurance Co.

173 N.W.2d 619 (Wis. 1970)


Plaintiff brought an action for personal injuries sustained when his car was struck by a car driven by Veith, an insured of the defendant.  Veith had a sudden mental aberration or delusion just prior to the collision affecting her ability to consciously operate the vehicle.  She believed God took control of the car and when she saw a truck coming, “stepped on the gas to become airborne because she knew she could fly because Batman does it.”

Procedural History

The jury found Veith was negligent because she had knowledge or forewarning of her mental delusions or disability.


Under what circumstances should a defense of insanity shield someone from negligence liability?

Holding / Rule

Affirmed.  For insanity to be a defense to negligence, the mental illness or hallucinations must affect the person’s ability to understand and appreciate the duty to exercise reasonable care or to act in an “ordinarily prudent manner.”  In addition, the person must not have notice or forewarning that he may suddenly subject to such a type of insanity.


In a negligence regime, it is “unjust to hold a man responsible for his conduct which he is incapable of avoiding and which incapability was unknown to him prior to the accident.”  The policy basis for holding a permanently insane person liable for his tort includes (1) when one of two innocent people must suffer a loss, putting it on the person who caused it; (2) inducing those interested in the tortfeasor’s estate to control him; and (3) the fear an insanity defense would lead to false claims of insanity to avoid liability.  But 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.”  Here, there was enough evidence of forewarning to support the jury’s verdict.  Although Veith’s psychiatrist opined she had no forewarning, testimony of friends indicated she previously had similar delusions interspersed with periods of normalcy.

Comments are closed.