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Katko v. Briney

Citation. 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Briney set up a 20-gauge spring shotgun in his old and uninhabited farmhouse without any warnings (though he did place “no trespass” signs on the land). Katko was shot in the leg while breaking and entering into Briney’s farmhouse, causing the permanent deformation of his leg.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There is no privilege to use deadly force or force that would cause serious bodily injury to repel trespassers unless there was a threat that would justify self-defense.


Due to a series of trespassing and housebreaking over the course of ten years, Briney set up a 20-gauge spring shotgun pointed toward an intruder’s leg in a bedroom of his old farmhouse that had been uninhabited for several years. Briney also situated “no trespass” signs on the land, the nearest which was 35 feet from the house.

Katko and McDonough broke and entered into Briney’s farm house to find and steal old bottles and dated fruit jars, at which point Katko was shot in the leg by the spring gun. He remained in the hospital for 40 days, and his leg was permanently deformed and shortened.


May an owner protect personal property in an unoccupied boarded-up farm house against trespassers and thieves by a spring gun capable of inflicting death or serious injury?



No, an owner may not protect personal property in an unoccupied boarded-up farm house against trespassers and thieves by a spring gun capable of inflicting death or serious injury.


Justice Larson

This case presents two vital questions:

  1. Is the owner of a building that is not occupied by a person liable in damages to an intruder who in the nighttime breaks into and enters the building with the intent to steal and is thereafter shot and seriously injured by a spring gun allegedly set by the owner to frighten intruders from his property?
  2. If the owner is liable for compensatory damages, is this a proper case for the allowance of exemplary or punitive damages?

When an owner has stored valuables and evidence is sufficient to show that the spring gun was only meant to ward off trespassers as a warning, punitive damages are not appropriate given the lack of intent to do serious bodily injury.


The law values human safety over mere property rights.

In Hooker v. Miller, a vineyard owner was found liable for a spring gun that shot a trespasser who was there to steal grapes. The court there found that a mere trespass against property other than a dwelling is not a sufficient justification to authorize the use of a deadly weapon by the owner in its defense; and that if death results in such a case it will be murder, though the killing be actually necessary to prevent the trespass.”

Here, Briney set up a spring gun in his uninhabited and old farmhouse. There was no indication that the spring gun was in the bedroom, and there was no justification of self-defense, as Briney’s house was several miles from the scene of the incident.

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