Katko v. Briney

Following is the case brief for Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (1971)

Case Summary of Katko v. Briney:

  • Defendants set up a spring gun to guard against people trespassing into their unoccupied farmhouse.  Plaintiff broke into the house and was seriously injured by the spring gun.
  • At trial, Plaintiff won a verdict of $20,000 actual, and $10,000 punitive, damages.  Defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa.
  • The Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the verdict.  The Iowa Supreme Court reasoned that human life far outweighs an interest in protecting personal property.  Therefore, deadly force, such as a spring gun, cannot be used to guard an unoccupied home against trespassers.

Katko v. Briney Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Bertha Briney inherited an old farmhouse that was in her family for generations.  The farmhouse was close to her and her husband’s home in Iowa.  Over the course of ten years, her husband Edward attempted to care for the unoccupied farmhouse and surrounding land.  The house, however, became dilapidated and suffered a series of break-ins during that time.  Edward put up “no trespassing” signs and boarded up the house, but the break-ins continued.  The Brineys then installed a spring gun that would go off if an intruder entered one of the bedrooms.

Marvin Katko, who had earlier taken “antique” jars from the house, broke into the house with a friend on an evening in 1967 looking for more items to take.  While his friend looked for items in the kitchen, Katko opened the door to one of the bedrooms, setting the spring gun off.  Katko was shot in the leg.  He suffered severe damage to his leg.

Procedural History:

Katko sued the Brineys for his injuries.  A jury returned a verdict for Katko, awarding him $20,000 in actual damages, and $10,000 in punitive damages.  The Brineys appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa.

Issue and Holding:

May a person protect his personal property in an unoccupied house by installing a spring gun that could cause death or serious injury?  No.

Judgment:

The verdict of the trial court is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Because the law places a higher value on human life than mere rights in property, a person may not protect an unoccupied home from trespassers through the use of a device that could cause death or serious injury.

Reasoning:

Case law and legal treatises universally agree that the value of human life and limb far outweighs a person’s interest in property.  Therefore, a property owner does not have the right to protect his or her property with something that could cause death or serious injury to a trespasser, unless the trespasser is threatening death or serious injury to the occupants of the property.  Stated differently, a homeowner cannot use deadly force against a trespasser unless the homeowner is using it in self-defense or defense of another person.

In the present case, the house that Katko intruded upon was unoccupied.  Because Katko posed no danger to life or limb, the use of a spring gun against him was unlawful.

Dissenting Opinion (Larson):

The majority fails to see that the matter is a fact-sensitive inquiry.  There should be no absolute liability to a homeowner who employs a spring gun to protect property should an intruder be injured in the course of a break-in.  In addition, the majority did not address the matter of punitive damages because it was not raised before the court.  However, the court should not allow punitive damages for a person who engaged in the criminal act of breaking and entering with the intent to steal.

Significance:

This case, a popular one in law school classes, stands for the proposition that human life is valued more than property.  Accordingly, one cannot use deadly force to merely protect property in an unoccupied house.

Student Resources:

//scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=1898372709114585666&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

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