Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff broke into defendants’ farmhouse and was seriously injured by a “spring gun” trap. Plaintiff, while admitting trespassing and theft, sued for damages caused by the injury.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
No privilege exists to use force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to prevent trespass unless the trespass threatens death or great bodily harm to the property owner.
Where the wrong is wanton, or it is willful, the jury are authorized to give an amount of damages beyond the actual injury sustained, as a punishment, and to preserve the public tranquillity.View Full Point of Law
Defendants are a married couple who inherited the farmhouse from the wife’s grandparents. The farm land and house had been unoccupied and dilapidated, and there were several trespassing and housebreaking that resulted some loss of household items. Defendants had been making several attempts through the years to stop the intrusions, including putting up signs and boarding up the windows. Tiring of intrusions, Mr. Briney decided to set up a shotgun trap. He was fully aware of the power of the shotgun. He admitted he did so because he was “mad and tired of being tormented” but “he did not intend to injure anyone”. There were no signs warning the trap, nor could the trap been seen outside the house.
Plaintiff is one of the trespassers. Prior to the accident, plaintiff went to the farm land before and took away some items. On a subsequent visit to the farmhouse, he opened the bedroom door and was hit by the shotgun. Plaintiff received serious injuries and was hospitalized for 40 days. Plaintiff testified he knew he had no right to break and enter the house with intent to steal, but he still sought damages for his injury.
Whether a property owner may protect personal property against trespassers and theives by a spring gun capable of inflicting death and serious injury?
No, the use of spring guns to protect uninhabited property was not permissible. Trial court judgment is affirmed.
Justice Justice Larson
Justice Larson emphasized that since there were no clear statutory provisions governing the right of an owner’s use of shotguns to protect his property, the Court should approach the public policy matters with extra deliberation. Therefore, unless the rule is that these property owners are liable for injuring intruders by such devices regardless of the intent with which it is installed, liability under these pleadings must rest upon two definite issues of fact:
did the defendants intend to shoot the invader, and,
if so, did they employ unnecessary and unreasonable force against him?
Since the Court wrongfully assumed that by installing a shotgun in the bedroom of their unoccupied house the defendants intended to shoot any intruder who attempted to enter the room, the jury was given incorrect instructions to no considering defendant’s intent. In this case, there were several evidence suggesting the purpose of installing a shotgun was to scaring away trespassers instead of seriously injuring them. Justice Larson believed that the case should be remanded for a jury determination on the issue of intent.
Justice Larson also commented on the majority opinion’s concern on public policy:
“Although I am aware of the often-repeated statement that personal rights are more important than property rights, where the owner has stored his valuables representing his life’s accumulations, his livelihood business, his tools and implements, and his treasured antiques as appears in the case at bar, and where the evidence is sufficient to sustain a finding that the installation was intended only as a warning to ward off thieves and criminals, I can see no compelling reason why the use of such a device alone would create liability as a matter of law.”
This Court explained that both textbook and case law had repeatedly stated that the law always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property. It was the accepted rule that there was no privilege to use any force calculated to cause death or serious bodily injury to repel the threat to land or chattels, unless defendant was act in self-defense to prevent personal injury during the incidence. The Court were in the opinion that spring guns and other man-killing devices were not justifiable means against mere trespassers or thieves. This Court also found all trial court’s jury instructions were correct.