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
) 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!"
In my latest article over at About.com, I tell the story of the 1970 Cable Car Nymphomaniac lawsuit
— which is still one of the most infamous legal cases in SF's history (and was recently made into a musical).
Once Minerva Elagan had accepted a pineapple soda from Rev James Chambers (Chalmers?), she was under his influence forever.
The Daily Standard (Sikeston, Missouri) - Oct 17, 1947
The Cincinnati Enquirer - Sep 18, 1947
The Square Donuts
company of Terre Haute, Indiana has been making square donuts for 50 years, and they've trademarked the name. Eleven years ago, the Family Express convenience store also began making donuts that are square, and selling them as "square donuts." The Square Donuts company recently noticed what they were doing. Therefore, lawyers are now involved.
Square Donuts demands that Family Express stop selling those square donuts. Family Express insists that "square donuts" is too generic a concept to trademark.
I wonder if anyone has trademarked Triangular Donuts or Polyhedral Donuts? A business opportunity perhaps?
More Info: CBS Chicago
A month ago I posted about the rice recipe that caused a woman to have a nervous breakdown
Summary: In 1989, Bobbie June Griggs submitted her rice recipe to South Carolina Electric & Gas's annual rice cookoff. She didn't win, but they published her recipe in their cookbook anyway. So she sued them, claiming its publication had caused her to have a nervous breakdown. For good measure, her husband sued also claiming "loss of consortium." The case almost made it to the Supreme Court, but they decided not to hear it, thereby letting the previous decisions stand. Those decisions were that: a) you can't copyright a single recipe, and b) "copyright law does not cover infliction of emotional distress." So Bobbie June Griggs was out of luck.
A few of you asked, what was the recipe? Thanks to the magic of interlibrary loan, I finally managed to obtain a copy of it, courtesy of the Charleston County Library, which sent me a photocopy of it free of charge. So here it is — the rice recipe that caused a woman to have a nervous breakdown.
I haven't made it yet, but I plan to try it out sometime in the near future. If any of you make it, let us know how it is, and post a picture of it.
It'd be interesting to know what the ruling was in this case, but I haven't been able to find any follow-up articles. The answer is probably hidden somewhere in a court archive.
The story reminds me of that more recent case of the aunt who claimed that her 8-year-old nephew's "exuberant hug" broke her wrist
, so she sued him for $127,000 in damages. (Yeah, I know, she had to sue for insurance reasons. Perhaps this 1961 case had a similar motive.)
The Daily Capital News (Jefferson City, Missouri) — Jan 27, 1961
Tricycle Operator Said Too Reckless
STEPHENVILLE, Tex. (AP) — Eddie Jones, 3, was described as "a reckless and incompetent tricycle operator" in a $50,000 damage suit in district court Tuesday.
The petition, filed by Homer Wolfe against Eddie's father, Ed Jones, alleges that Wolfe's wife, Bertha, was employed as a maid in Jones' home when she was struck by a tricycle last Aug. 26. The petition alleges she suffered extensive injuries and mental anguish.
"Little Eddie, who was on his tricycle, gathered a full head of steam and without a warning yell of any nature propelled his tricycle with great force into the body of Bertha Wolfe while her back was turned," the petition charged.
The plaintiff contends that the senior Jones knew that his son "was a reckless and incompetent operator of the tricycle."
Bobbie June Griggs sued South Carolina Electric & Gas, claiming that its publication of her rice recipe caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown. Her husband also brought an action for "loss of consortium."
Griggs had entered her rice recipe in the utility's Third Annual Rice Cookoff in 1989. She wasn't picked as a finalist, but the utility nevertheless included her recipe in the cookoff cookbook (Rice, a lowcountry tradition: the official cookbook for the Third Annual South Carolina Rice Cookoff
). This is what triggered the nervous breakdown.
The state court dismissed her case, noting that it was really a copyright case and thus belonged in the federal courts. In 1995, the state supreme court affirmed this decision
(although one justice dissented). And it seems that Griggs tried to take her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, because the AP reported in April 1996
that the Supreme Court also refused to hear her case, noting that "copyright law does not cover infliction of emotional distress" and also that you can't copyright a single recipe.
Her recipe, which she said she spent 10 years developing, involved canned tomatoes, meatballs, onions and bell peppers on a bed of rice. She called it "June's Creation."
Spartanburg Herald-Journal - Apr 23, 1996
Mrs. Muncy of Redondo Beach was shocked and humiliated when her white swimsuit got wet and showed everything. So she sued the maker of the suit for $10,000.
Unfortunately I can't find any record of the outcome of her lawsuit.
That info is probably available somewhere in the archives of the L.A. County Superior Court
, but their archives aren't searchable online. It's too bad that courts, for the most part, don't make any effort to put their archives online. It would be a gold mine for the history of weird news if they did.
Freeport Journal Standard - Nov 19, 1953
LA Times - Nov 19, 1953
[Click to enlarge--ha!]
There's a great story behind this pill, wherein an ex-employee tried to rip off the formula and sell it as "Charm-on." Read it here.
Did you know breast-boosting pills are still for sale?
Original ad scanned from this magazine:
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