The Brineys (Defendants) set a boobytrap that shot Katko (Plaintiff) when he broke into their unoccupied home to steal antiques. Katko sued the Brineys to recover actual damages and punitive damages for his injuries.
The affirmative defense of privilege to defense one’s person and property will not apply to deadly force being used when only property, and not human life, is at risk.
The Brineys (Defendants) had experienced multiple home break-ins at a property they used for storage. Fed up with this, they set a boobytrap in the bedroom with a spring gun pointed at the door. Katko (Plaintiff) broke into the home to steal antiques, entered the bedroom, and was shot in the leg. After he was criminally prosecuted, Plaintiff brought suit against the Brineys for the injuries he suffered.
Did the trial court err in instructing jurors that a homeowner cannot use deadly force against a trespasser unless the trespasser was endangering human life?
No, the trial court did not err in its instruction. Established legal principles support the instruction that force against trespassers is prohibited unless the trespasser is threatening human life.
Larson dissents because he believes the Court has overstepped in determining that as a matter of law, setting a boobytrap creates liability. He prefers to leave the question to the jury of whether a boobytrap was intended to seriously injure or kill a trespasser instead of basing the decision on the injury that actually resulted.
The Court cites several authorities to support this jury instruction. These include textbooks and the Restatement of Torts. Each of these authorities emphasizes that human life is valued more highly than property rights and homeowners do not have the privilege to harm a trespasser who does not threaten human life. In this case, there was no threat to human life during a break-in of an unoccupied house.