On January 28, 1966, Erma Veith was driving along Highway 19 in Wisconsin when suddenly she veered out of her lane and sideswiped an oncoming truck driven by Phillip Breunig.
Breunig later sued for damages, but Mrs. Veith's insurance company offered an unusual defense. It said she wasn't negligent and therefore not liable because she had been overcome by a mental delusion moments before swerving out of her lane. She hadn't been operating her automobile "with her conscious mind."
The insurance company lost the initial case, but appealed, and eventually the dispute ended up before the Supreme Court of Wisconsin (Breunig v. American Family Insurance Co.). There, the court heard the nature of the mental delusion that had gripped Mrs. Veith:
The psychiatrist testified Mrs. Veith told him she was driving on a road when she believed that God was taking ahold of the steering wheel and was directing her car. She saw the truck coming and stepped on the gas in order to become airborne because she knew she could fly because Batman does it. To her surprise she was not airborne before striking the truck but after the impact she was flying.
Actually, Mrs. Veith's car continued west on Highway 19 for about a mile. The road was straight for this distance and then made a gradual turn to the right. At this turn her car left the road in a straight line, negotiated a deep ditch and came to rest in a cornfield. When a traffic officer came to the car to investigate the accident, he found Mrs. Veith sitting behind the wheel looking off into space. He could not get a statement of any kind from her.
The court ultimately agreed with the insurance company that a sudden mental incapacity might excuse a person from the normal standard of negligence. It noted that a Canadian court had once reached a similar conclusion: "There, the court found no negligence when a truck driver was overcome by a sudden insane delusion that his truck was being operated by remote control of his employer and as a result he was in fact helpless to avert a collision."
But the Wisconsin Supreme Court then ruled that this excuse didn't apply in Veith's case because she had had similar episodes before. Therefore, she should have reasonably concluded that she wasn't fit to drive.
This case has become an important precedent in tort law, establishing the principle that you can't use sudden mental illness as an excuse if you have forewarning of your susceptibility to the condition.
The case is such a classic that in an issue of the Georgia Law Review (Summer 2005) it was even described in verse:
A bright white light on the car ahead,
Entranced Erma Veith, so she later said.
Pursuing that light, a miracle did unfold:
Of Erma's steering wheel, God took control.
Under the influence of celestial propulsion,
Erma now operated by divine compulsion.
She met a truck, and responded in scorn:
She hit the gas, so she'd become airborne.
Why, Erma, would you seek elevation?
"Batman!" she replied, "my inspiration!"
Moreover, at trial, other evidence of panic:
She had previously invoked the Duo Dynamic.
Once to her daughter, she had commented:
"Batman is good; your father is demented."
The law held sympathy for Erma's plight:
After all, mankind has long yearned for flight.
Soaring above, slipping gravity's attraction,
Many have aspired to that satisfaction.
Still, the law cautioned, the limits were great:
"Was Erma forewarned of her delusional state?"
On this issue, the evidence appeared strong:
"She had known of her condition all along."
She experienced a vision, at a shrine in a park:
When the end came, she would be in the Ark.
Indeed, she would assist, in sorting them out:
Those to be saved, and those not devout.
Knowing all this, said the court in conclusion,
She might well expect, she'd suffer delusion.
In her condition, a state most bizarre,
Erma was negligent, to drive a car.
And to Erma, a lesson of universal appeal:
"Nothing can emulate the Batmobile!"
Yellowstone National Park contains a 50-square mile "zone of death" where, legal scholars suggest, a person could commit murder without fear of prosecution. This zone is the part of the park that extends into Idaho.
The reason for this free-pass-for-murder lies with the Sixth Amendment which guarantees a defendant the right to a trial by a jury "of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." The zone is in the State of Idaho, but because of the unique legal status of Yellowstone, it's in the judicial District of Wyoming. Therefore, to prosecute anyone a court would need to form a jury of people who live simultaneously in the State of Idaho and the District of Wyoming, and no one fits that bill because no one lives in the Idaho part of Yellowstone. Without being able to create a jury, a trial couldn't proceed.
A similar zone exists in the part of Yellowstone that extends into Montana. However, a few people live there, so a jury could, in theory, be formed from its residents.
This legal loophole was first pointed out in 2005 by Brian Kalt, a professor at Michigan State Law School, in an article published in the Georgetown Law Journal. Kalt urged Congress to pass legislation to fix the loophole before someone tested the loophole by committing murder in the death zone. The simplest fix, he proposed, would be to change the district lines so that the part of Yellowstone in Idaho would be included in the District of Idaho.
To date, Congress has not done anything to fix the problem. Part of the reason for this is political inertia. But there's also resistance to changing the District lines because this would place part of Yellowstone under the jurisdiction of the more liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which, it's feared, environmentalists could use to their advantage. So the "zone of death" remains.
The idea of a legal "zone of death" has naturally appealed to the imaginations of artists. The zone was featured in a best-selling mystery novel, Free Fire, by CJ Box. And in 2016 it became the subject of a film, Population Zero (trailer below).
January 1973: Texas State Rep. Jim Kaster filed a bill that would have required criminals to give their victims twenty-four hours notice before they committed a crime. Argued Kaster, "Obviously the criminal is not going to do it, but this would be another punishment that could be added to the penalty." No surprise, the bill was defeated.
When George Albert Wyld of Australia died on January 23, 1911, his will instructed that his estate should be left to his children, but when they had all died it should then be applied to:
"the maintenance of a maternity home to be known as the Wyld Home, and to be available to the extent of its means to young women who have erred for the first time, but under no circumstances for the second occasion."
Wyld's children all passed away by 1949, at which time the executors of his estate applied the remaining money to an "institution superintended by Miss Cocks" adjoining the Methodist Home for Girls at Brighton.
Wyld had five children, but had never married any of their mothers. This probably had something to do with his unusual bequest.
Jackson, Mississippi. 1966: Rev. Dennis McDonald, being a new preacher in town, visited local residents with his two sons to invite them to his church. But he was shocked (shocked!) when he paid a visit to Mrs. Pendergrass and found her sunbathing outside in her birthday suit. Naturally he had to report her to the police, who fined her $50.
But Mrs. Pendergrass appealed the fine, and the court took her side, noting that a) she was on her own property, not in public; and b) if the minister was so shocked, why did he hang around at her house for 45 minutes?
After Wayne Anthony Evans was pulled over for speeding by a Seattle police officer, a paring knife was found in his pocket, and he was arrested for possession of a fixed-blade knife. In his defense, Evans argued that the Seattle municipal code banning fixed-blade knifes violated his constitutional right to bear arms.
Not so, the Washington Supreme Court recently decided. It didn't consider the constitutionality of the municipal code itself, but (looking narrowly at the facts of this specific case) decided that there was no historical evidence that paring knives are "arms." Therefore, they can be banned.
we hold that not all knives are constitutionally protected arms and that Evans does not demonstrate that his paring knife is an "arm" as defined under our state or federal constitution.
If Evans had been carrying a bayonet, perhaps the outcome of the case would have been different.
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Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction books such as Elephants on Acid.
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