Breunig v. American Family Insurance Co.

45 Wis.2d 536, 173 N.W.2d 619 (1970)

Quick Summary

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Phillip Breunig (plaintiff) was involved in an accident with Erma Veith (defendant), insured by American Family Insurance Co. Veith, under an insane delusion, caused the crash. The dispute was whether Veith’s mental state at the time of the accident could exempt her from negligence liability.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that insanity is not a defense in negligence unless the individual suddenly becomes incapacitated without forewarning. The Court affirmed the verdict finding Veith negligent and liable for damages.

Facts of the Case

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Phillip Breunig (plaintiff) was injured in a car accident caused by Erma Veith, who was insured by American Family Insurance Co. (defendant). Veith had crossed into oncoming traffic and collided with Breunig’s vehicle.

Prior to the accident, Veith experienced an insane delusion, believing that God was steering her car and that she could fly like Batman, which led her to accelerate her vehicle into Breunig’s lane. Veith had a history of mental illness and hallucinations before the incident occurred.

Following the accident, American Family Insurance Co. refused to pay Breunig’s claim. Breunig then sued the insurance company on the basis that Veith was negligent in operating her vehicle while under the influence of an insane delusion, and thus liable for the damages incurred from the accident.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. The jury initially found in favor of Breunig and awarded $10,000 in damages.
  2. The award was later reduced to $7,000.
  3. American Family Insurance Co. appealed the decision.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether Erma Veith could be held liable for negligence due to her insane delusion at the time of the car accident.

Rule of Law

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An individual cannot be held negligent if they are suddenly overcome by a mental disability or disorder without forewarning, which incapacitates them from conforming their conduct to the standards of a reasonable person under similar circumstances.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court considered whether Veith had sufficient foreknowledge of her susceptibility to mental aberrations that could affect her ability to drive safely. The court noted that not all forms of insanity negate responsibility for a negligent tort, and liability must be determined based on the nature and effect of the mental illness.

The court acknowledged that while there was expert testimony indicating Veith had no forewarning of her mental illness triggering during driving, the jury was entitled to weigh this evidence and determine credibility.

The court also addressed the concept of insanity as a defense in negligence cases, emphasizing that sudden mental incapacity should be treated similarly to unforeseen physical incapacities like heart attacks or strokes.

The jury’s verdict suggested they found Veith had some forewarning or knowledge of her condition that could lead to hallucinations affecting her driving, thus holding her negligent.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision that Veith was negligent and upheld the $7,000 damages awarded to Breunig.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Sudden mental incapacity without forewarning is treated similarly to sudden physical incapacities in determining negligence liability.
  2. Insanity can be a defense in a negligence case if there is no forewarning of the incapacity.
  3. The jury has the discretion to determine the credibility of expert testimony regarding the foreknowledge of a mental condition affecting driving ability.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the legal implications when an individual with a known health issue fails to take precautions?

An individual with a known health condition has a legal duty to take reasonable precautions to prevent foreseeable harm that might arise from their condition. The failure to do so can result in liability if their condition causes harm, as they may be seen as negligent for not managing the known risks.

  • For example: A driver with epileptic seizures who chooses to drive without taking prescribed medication could be held liable if a seizure leads to an accident.

How does sudden incapacity affect the standard of care in negligence cases?

Sudden incapacity, such as an unexpected medical event, can exempt a defendant from liability in negligence cases if it was unforeseeable and they could not reasonably have taken action to prevent the harm caused.

  • For example: If a driver has a sudden heart attack and loses control of the vehicle without prior symptoms or warnings, they likely would not be held negligent for resultant damages.

What is the role of expert testimony in establishing foreknowledge of a mental or physical condition in negligence cases?

Expert testimony can be crucial in establishing whether an individual had forewarning of a mental or physical condition that could impair their ability to act safely. Juries often rely on such testimony to assess whether the defendant was aware or should have been aware of the risks posed by their condition.

  • For example: When someone suffers from fainting spells, expert testimony regarding the predictability and management of these episodes could influence the determination of negligence.


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