Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff broke into and entered a farmhouse owned but not occupied by Defendant for the purposes of theft. Plaintiff was injured in the process by a “spring gun” trap Defendant had set to thwart intruders. Although “no trespass” signs were posted on the property, no warning about the trap was posted.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. No privilege exists to use force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to prevent trespass to land or chattels unless the trespass threatens death or great bodily harm to the occupier or user of the land or chattel.
Plaintiff broke into a farmhouse owned but not occupied by Defendant to steal items he might find inside. Unbeknownst to the Plaintiff, Defendant had set a shotgun trap inside, and the gun fired at and injured Plaintiff when he entered the house. Defendant testified that he had placed the trap because he was tired of people breaking into the farmhouse, but did not intend to injure anyone. There were “no trespass” signs posted around the farmhouse, but no indications of any traps therein. The Trial Court instructed the jury that such a spring gun trap was prohibited unless it was used to prevent a trespasser from committing a felony of violence or punishable by death. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff and the Trial Court denied motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Defendant appealed.
Issue. Was the Trial Court correct to instruct the jury that such a trap could not be used except to prevent a trespasser from committing a felony of violence or punishable by death and to deny the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict?
Held. Yes. The judgment was affirmed.
* The Trial Court’s instructions were correct. A privilege to use means intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm in order to prevent trespass to land or chattels exists only when the trespasser is committing a felony of violence or punishable by death. Such was not the case here.
* Criminal liability may also result from the use of such traps.
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The instructions made no provision for the possibility that the device was set with no intent to actually strike or harm an intruder, and previous cases on the subject dealt with intrusions to a vineyard, not a burglary such as this. Discussion.
The Court acknowledges one’s rights to protect against trespasses, but places important limitations upon those rights. Of paramount concern, the Court explains, is the value of human life and well-being. It is therefore necessary that actions risking loss of human life or damage to well being are prohibited except under circumstances when another party has already created a risk to either.