Breunig v. American Family Ins. Co. – Case Brief

Breunig v. American Family Ins. Co., Sup. Ct. of Wisc., 45 Wisc.2d 536, 173 N.W.2d 619 (1970).

Case Summary

Facts: Veith was insured by American Family Ins. Co. (D) at the time she was involved in an accident with Breunig (P). At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Veith suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia. She had told him that she believed that God had taken the wheel and was in control of the car.

Veith stepped on the accelerator to become airborne when she saw Breunig’s truck approaching, believing that she would be able to fly like Batman. The jury returned a verdict for Breunig and American Family Insurance appealed.

Issue: Under what circumstances can insanity be used as a defense to negligence?

Holding and Rule: To claim insanity as a defense to negligence, the effect of the mental illness must be such as to effect the person’s ability to understand and appreciate the duty to act as a reasonable person under the circumstances, and there must be the absence of any warning that the person is subject to such an event.

An insane person is held liable for negligence if there is a prior warning of the illness. The defendant must be unaware of the insanity. If the defendant is aware the ordinary negligence standard applies.

Public Policy: The general policy considerations for holding an insane person liable for his torts are:
(1) when one of two innocent persons must suffer a loss it should be borne by the one who occasioned it;
(2) to induce those interested in the estate of the insane person’ to restrain and control him; and
(3) to stop false claims of insanity to avoid liability.

Disposition: Affirmed.

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