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Katko v. Briney

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Citation. 3 Cal. 69, 1853 Cal.

Brief Fact Summary. Marvin E. Katko (Plaintiff), filed an action for damages resulting from serious injury caused by a shot from a 20-gauge spring shotgun. The shotgun was set by Edward and Bertha Briney (Defendants), in a bedroom of an old farmhouse, which had been uninhabited for several years.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The value of human life and limb both to an individual and as a matter of public policy outweighs the potential damage to property. Thus, while a defendant may use reasonable force in defense of her property, he has no right to willfully and intentionally injure a trespasser in a manner that may result in loss of life or great bodily injury. The only exception is when the trespasser is committing a violent felony with the potential of endangering human life.

Facts. Defendants inherited an unoccupied farmhouse and over the course of ten years the house was subject to a series of break-ins. The property sustained considerable damage and despite boarding up the windows and posting no trespass signs, the incidents continued. Defendants then set up a shotgun trap, where the gun was secured to an iron bed with its muzzle pointed at the door. A wire was fastened from trigger to doorknob, pointed in such a manner as to wound an intruder’s feet. When Plaintiff, having broken and entered on at least one prior occasion entered, the gun went off, injuring Plaintiff’s right leg. A jury found for the Plaintiff, awarding both actual and punitive damages. Defendants appealed.

Issue. Did Defendants employ a reasonable means of preventing the unlawful entry of trespassers on their property?

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