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Katko v. Briney

    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?

    Held. No. The Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the judgment because the use of spring guns to protect uninhabited property was not permissible.

    Dissent. The dissent opined that the majority wrongfully assumed that by installing a spring gun in the bedroom of their unoccupied house, the Defendants intended to shoot any intruder who attempted to enter the room. The dissent frames the issue in the following manner: there exist two definite issues of fact, i.e., did the Defendants intend to shoot the invader, and if so, did they employ unnecessary and unreasonable force against him? The dissent asserts that in its view there is no absolute liability for injury to a criminal intruder by setting up such a device on his property unless done with an intent to kill or seriously injure the intruder.
    * The dissent further objected to the awarding of punitive damages, contending that such an award is “court-made law, not statutory law.” In sum, the dissent maintains that “under such circumstances as we have here the issue as to whether the set was with an intent to seriously injure or kill an intruder is a question of fact that should be left to the jury under proper instructions, and that the mere setting of such a device with a resultant serious injury should not as a matter of law establish liability.”

    Discussion. The question presented in Katko centers around the determination of the general privilege of an owner to defend property and what level of force is reasonable to do so. The ruling in Katko is consistent with all other areas of tort law with regard to the use of force, the standard being one of reasonableness. In short, an individual is permitted to use a degree of force commensurate with the threat with which they are confronted. Thus, as here, where the owner of the property in question is not faced with a threat of death or grave bodily injury, that owner cannot do indirectly, by means of “a mechanical device that which, were he present, he could not immediately do in person.”


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