Torts I, Pages 114–117

Katko v. Briney

Supreme Court of Iowa, 1971

Facts:

Defendant boarded up and put a no trespass sign on an unoccupied house. Then in the bedroom, defendant wired up a shotgun to fire at the legs of anyone entering the bedroom. Plaintiff and his companion broke into defendant's unoccupied house to steal antique bottles. When they entered the bedroom, the shotgun fired and blew off much of plaintiff's leg, leaving a permanent deformity.

Procedural History:

The jury returned verdict for plaintiff for $20,000 actual and $10,000 punitive damages. The judge entered judgment thereupon, stating that such dangerous devices are only justified when the trespasser was committing a violent felony or endangering human life.

Issue:

Whether an owner may protect personal property in an unoccupied house by a spring gun capable of inflicting death or serious injury.

Reasoning:

A person does not have a privilege to do mechanically that which he could not do in person. There was no risk of death or serious bodily harm here, so defendant was not allowed to shoot him in person or remotely.

Rule/Holding:

No, an owner may not shoot a person in an unoccupied house via a spring gun.

Notes:

  • Majority rule

  • Some states modify the rule if defendant warned plaintiff of danger.

Judgment:

Affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion:

The jury was not told it could find that the device was not made with the intent to strike plaintiff. The principle espoused has only been applied in cases "of a mere trespasser in a vineyard." Punitive damages should not have been allowed when plaintiff's conduct was criminal.

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