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Tort Questions: Booby-Trapped Weapons and Intruders Essay

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Updated: Jun 29th, 2022

Katko v. Briney [1] is the renowned tort case decided by the Supreme Court of Iowa. The defendant in this case, the house owner, was held responsible for a battery of injuries sustained by the plaintiff, a trespasser, who set off a spring gun set as a booby trap in an unoccupied house on the defendant property. In Hooker v. Miller [2], the use of trap gun in an orchard to wee away from the trespasser and in State v. Vance [3] , trap gun set in the open barn was considered by the court as harmful devices to cause damages to the trespassers.

The main question in the Katko v Briney case was whether a landlord could defend his personal property in an uninhabited, locked farmhouse against thieves and trespassers by placing a spring gun competent of causing serious injury or death. The Supreme Court of Iowa confirmed by holding that the law did not authorize spring guns to be employed on such occasions.

At this juncture, I wish to bring the attention of a British case law namely Ilott v. Wilkes (1820) which set forth the principle in England that where notice of the presence of spring guns has been made, if a trespasser treads upon the hazardous premises at his risk and the defendant (owner) cannot be held liable for consequential injury or harm. It is to be noted that though the judges were somewhat firm in finding a valid reason for their judgment, the judgment can be considered as arising out of their hard common sense and is proper and appropriate. This decision confirms that the peril should be placed on the individual who wantonly treads into a place of danger on a forbidden premise.

However, if one reads the law in between the lines, no one has the right to shoot a person because he carries on against warnings, in trespassing on one’s premises. This decision had sent shock waves in England and currently paved to a statutory abridgment of the “privilege to set spring guns. The bold concept laid down in Ilott v. Wilkes has not been welcomed with delight in some American jurisdictions.

In Katco v. Briney, it was held that an owner may safeguard his property from trespassers employing reasonable force. In his attempt to safeguard his premise, a defendant cannot kill or seriously injure a trespasser. Thus, reasonable force can only be used either in defense of others or in self-defense.

The American law and court do not give due cognizance to a potential trespasser who engages in activities that are intrinsically dangerous not only to others but also to his own person or property. In this case, the failure to observe due care automatically exposes not only others but also the trespasser himself to the peril of serious injury.

The main contention of the defendant in these cases was that “the law authorizes the employment of a spring gun in a residential or warehouse for the purpose of forbidding the unlawful entry of a thief or burglar.

However , the law justifies “the demeanor of setting a ‘spring gun’ or identical hazardous device when the trespasser was perpetrating an offense of violence or an offense punishable by death, or where the trespasser was jeopardizing human life by his act.”

As a defendant, you can rely on the provision of law that use of dangerous devise is authorized when defendant’s personal safety is in danger and as a measure of self defense.

It is to be remembered that there was no ulterior motive or intent to kill or seriously injure the intruder by the defendant. As such, defendant in these cases should have been held liable under negligence. Here , the defendant had set the spring gun so as to injure the trespasser on his leg and not on his chest and this demonstrates that defendant had no intention either to kill or to seriously injure the intruder. The main intention is to safeguard his property from intruders and thieves. As a defendant, you have the right to argue that the court has no jurisdiction to award punitive damages to a criminal offender of trespassing and stealing.

As a defendant, you should put forth in your argument that there is no prior intention of either injuring or striking the plaintiff as there is no either prior issues or scuffles between them. The defendant should have stated in his affidavit that main intention of placing spring gun was to frighten or scare away the intruder and not to intent to kill or seriously injure him.

To succeed in cases like this, the defendant should clearly or adequately submit to jury with proper evidence that there was no malice to injure the trespasser.

The defendant should have raised their objection about the absence of any law prohibiting the use of spring gun to chase away intruders.

The most of the decisions has used the precedent and ratio decendi used in Hooker v. Miller case. The defendant should have argued in the absence of clear cut legal provisions on the subject, there is likelihood of existence of ambiguity and controversies on the subject. Further, courts have not addressed the issue when such a devise is fixed in uninhibited premises where valuable properties were stored to shun away criminal trespassers.

Further, the trial court erred in presenting the issue to the juries as the awarding of punitive damages is the prerogative rights of courts and juries have no right to award punitive damages.

Hence, enough lobbying should be made to enact legislation where an owner of premise which housing precious property may employ the use of spring guns or other apparatus designated to keep away but not gravely injure a trespasser who enters his secure building with or without a criminal malice.

If a building owner has warehoused his costly articles constituting his life’s collections, his occupational inventories, his implements and tools, and his cherished antiques and where the proof is adequate to maintain a finding that the setting up a spring gun was meant only as a warning to drive away criminals and thieves, I can see no convincing reason why the use of such a apparatus would make legal responsibility as a matter of law.

I wish to bring to your kind attention that in the following cases it had been held that dangerous devices may be employed to drive away and shun an intruder from trespassing and entering into inhabited premises. State v. Vance, Scheuermann v. Scharfenberg, United States v. Gilliam, Simpson v. State Grimlich v. Wurst and State v. Childers.

I also wish to bring to kind notice that in the following cases, it had been held that a property owner may use devises to shun away a trespasser where there is no threat to safety or human life. State v. Childers, Allison v. Fiscus, State v. Barr, Pierce v. Commonwealth, Weis v. Allen, Marquis v. Benfer and Johnson v. Patterson.

In State v.Metcalfe1, the court held that it would consider whether the defendant used only that amount of force which a reasonable person would apply under the circumstances concerned.

We can fight for punishing the plaintiff for trespassing with theft motive and the case of awarding punitive damages to the plaintiff is unwarranted and as a defendant, you are having very good chance for winning the case on the above illustrated grounds.

Works Cited

Dervort, Thomas R. Van. American Law and the Legal System. Equal Justice under the Law. Florence: Cengage Learning. 2000.

Weinrib, Ernest J. Tort Law. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publication. 2003.


  1. 203 Iowa 155 ,212 N.W.382.
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