Katko v. Briney

183 N.W.2d 657 (1971)

Quick Summary

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Briney set up a spring gun trap in their vacant farmhouse, injuring Marvin Katko, who was trespassing. Katko sued for excessive force and was awarded damages. The court held that using deadly devices to protect unoccupied property is unlawful because human safety takes precedence over property rights.

Facts of the Case

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Briney’s owned a vacant farmhouse that had been broken into and vandalized multiple times over ten years. To prevent further intrusions, Mr. Briney installed a spring gun trap in one of the bedrooms, consisting of a shotgun aimed at the door and rigged to fire when opened.

The gun was not visible from outside the room, nor were there any warning signs indicating its presence. Marvin Katko, believing the house to be abandoned, broke in with a friend to collect old bottles and jars considered antiques. On a subsequent visit, Katko triggered the spring gun upon opening the bedroom door and was shot in the right leg, resulting in severe injuries.

Katko filed a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for his injuries, arguing that setting such a trap was excessive force and unlawful. The jury awarded him $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Marvin Katko filed a lawsuit for damages after being injured by a spring gun trap set by the Briney’s.
  2. The case was tried in a trial court where the jury awarded Katko $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.
  3. The Brineys filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial, which were denied by the trial court.
  4. The Brineys appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon
  • Whether an owner may protect personal property in an unoccupied building against trespassers by setting a deadly weapon.
  • Whether the awarding of punitive damages to a plaintiff who was engaged in criminal trespassing is permissible.

Rule of Law

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“The law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property…no privilege to use any force calculated to cause death or serious bodily injury to repel the threat to land or chattels…unless there is also such a threat to the defendant’s personal safety as to justify self-defense.” (Prosser on Torts)

“An owner of premises is prohibited from willfully or intentionally injuring a trespasser by means of force that either takes life or inflicts great bodily injury.” (Restatement of Torts)

Reasoning and Analysis

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The principle that human safety outweighs property rights was applied here. Using devices capable of causing serious injury or death is not justified solely for protecting property. Since Katko posed no threat to human life, setting up such a spring gun was deemed excessive and unlawful.

Previous legal precedents supported this view unless there was a direct threat to personal safety. Additionally, the absence of warning signs compounded the defendants’ liability. Therefore, setting such traps was disproportionate relative to protecting property.


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The Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that setting a spring gun trap in an unoccupied house causing serious injury is not permissible under law. The ruling upheld both compensatory and punitive damages awarded to Katko.

Dissenting Opinions

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Justice Larson dissented, arguing that liability should depend on whether the defendants intended to cause serious injury or merely scare intruders away. He contended that punitive damages should not be awarded when the plaintiff was engaged in criminal conduct.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Property owners cannot use force capable of causing death or serious injury solely to protect unoccupied buildings.
  2. Human safety is prioritized over property rights in legal considerations.
  3. The absence of warnings about dangerous traps increases the liability of property owners.
  4. Punitive damages can be awarded even if the injured party was engaged in criminal trespassing.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the legal extent to which a property owner can defend against intruders?

The legal extent to which a property owner can defend against intruders is limited to using appropriate force in self-defense. In some cases, the law permits using deadly force only when necessary for personal safety and never to safeguard possessions.

How to legally prevent trespassing on an unoccupied property?

  • Clearly post “No Trespassing” signs on the property.
  • Install a fence or barrier to physically block access to the property.
  • Set up a motion-activated security system or surveillance cameras.
  • Contact local law enforcement to report any suspected trespassing.
  • Obtain a restraining order if the trespasser is a known individual.
  • Properly secure any doors, windows, or other potential entry points to the property.
  • Seek legal advice or hire a security professional to determine the best course of action.
  • Place locks or bars on windows and doors.
  • Keep the property well-maintained and clean to reduce the appeal for trespassers.
  • Register the property with local law enforcement or a private security company to increase monitoring and surveillance.


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