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!"