Puneet Varma (Editor)

Katko v. Briney

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Citation(s)  183 N.W.2d 657
Dissent  Larson
Decision by  Moore
Ruling court  Iowa Supreme Court
Full case name  Marvin Katko v. Edward Briney and Bertha L. Briney
Appealed from  Iowa District Court for the 8th Judicial District
Judges sitting  Chief Justice C. Edwin Moore Associate Justices Robert L. Larson · William Corwin Stuart · M. L. Mason · Francis H. Becker · Warren J. Rees · Maurice E. Rawlings · Clay LeGrand · Harvey Uhlenhopp
Similar  Abel v United States, Garratt v Dailey, Griffin v California, Jaffee v Redmond, Vosburg v Putney

Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971), was a court case decided by the Supreme Court of Iowa, in which a homeowner (Edward Briney) was held liable for battery for injuries caused to a trespasser (Marvin Katko) who set off a spring gun set as a mantrap in an abandoned house on the homeowner's property.


Factual background

Briney inherited an old farmhouse in Mahaska County, Iowa, which he had left vacant for the last ten years prior to the incident. He had the house boarded up and placed "No Trespassing" signs around the property. The house was in poor condition and was subject to frequent burglaries and break-ins. To defend the house against intruders, Briney mounted a 20-gauge spring-loaded shotgun in the farmhouse and rigged it to fire when the north bedroom door was opened. The gun was aimed downward so as to shoot an intruder's legs, rather than cause a mortal injury. Briney also covered the bedroom window with steel. A month later, on July 16, 1967, Katko entered the farmhouse with the intent of stealing some old bottles and dated fruit jars that Katko considered antiques. He was aware of their presence because he and a friend had broken into the house two weeks earlier. When Katko entered the bedroom, he tripped the trigger mechanism and the shotgun fired into his legs at point blank range. The gunshot wounds were sufficiently severe to require hospitalization, and Katko sued Briney after his release from the hospital.

Opinion of the Court

Garold Heslinga of Oskaloosa, Iowa, was the attorney for the appellee (Katko) and Bruce Palmer and H.S. Life. also of Oskaloosa, Iowa, represented the appellants (Brineys).

The Court ruled that using deadly force on intruders in an unoccupied property was not reasonable or justified. Briney would have been justified in defending himself with the shotgun if he had been home during the intrusion. The plaintiff's status as a trespasser is irrelevant when assessing liability in this case.

The case stands for the proposition that, though a landowner has no duty to make his property safe for trespassers, he may not set deadly traps against them, holding that "the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property." The court thus ruled for Katko, entering judgment for $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.


The case had several subsequent results. The Brineys sold 80 of their 120 acres (0.49 km2) to pay the judgment while proceeding with an appeal. Three of Briney's neighbors bought the property at auction, paying $1 more than the minimum bid of $10,000. After the appeal was denied, they made a leaseback arrangement with Briney, but eventually one sold his share to his son for a profit. Briney and Katko then joined in a lawsuit against the neighbor to create a constructive trust on the profit, but the case was settled before trial in an amount sufficient to close out the judgment against Briney.

As Katko's injury was misreported by the United Press International wire service as having taken place in the Briney residence, several states introduced what were called "Briney Bills" for self-defense, which was not at issue in the case. The Nebraska Legislature act, stating that "no person ... shall be placed in ... jeopardy ... for protecting, by any means necessary, himself, his family, or his real estate property", was overturned due to improper delegation of sentencing authority in State v. Goodseal (1971).

Four years after the case was decided, Briney was asked if he would change anything about the situation. Briney replied, "There's one thing I'd do different, though: I'd have aimed that gun a few feet higher."


Katko v. Briney Wikipedia