CAN A PROPERTY OWNER EVER BE LIABLE FOR INJURIES SUFFERED BY AN ILLEGAL TRESPASSER WHO IS INJURED ON THE PROPERTY?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a property owner ever be liable for injuries suffered by an illegal trespasser who is injured on the property?
This case deals with what obligations a property owner owes to an illegal trespasser. Id. at 658. Specifically, whether a property owner is liable for injuries caused by traps set to injure burglars (i.e., could the burglars from Home Alone sue the child for their injuries?). Id. The court held that a property owner must not willfully or intentionally attempt to injure a trespasser. Id. at 660. The Defendant’s use of a spring-gun in his seldom-used property violated this duty and Defendant was responsible for Plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at 662.
Defendant owned an old farmhouse in rural Iowa. Id. at 658. Defendant did not visit the house often, and it had been burglarized several times in the past. Id. This led Defendant to set up a spring-gun in a bedroom of the house. Id. The gun was a 20-gauge shotgun set to fire when the door opened. Id. Plaintiff and his friend broke into the home in an attempt to steal antiques they believed to be inside. Id. The gun fired, striking Plaintiff in the right leg and causing severe injuries. Id. at 658-59. The leg was almost amputated, but eventually largely healed. Id.
Even at this point, the law was fairly well settled that liability could exist for intentional or willful harm to a trespasser. Id. at 660. However, such “trespassers” are generally individuals that are allowed to be on a property, but exceed the limits of his invitation. Id. For example, a customer at a store that wanders into the backroom would become a trespasser—he is not invited to enter all areas of the store, only those open to customers. Id. But here, the court dealt with an admitted criminal trespasser, there to steal from Defendant’s property. Id. Despite this fact, the court found that protecting property cannot justify harm to life and limb. Id. at 660-61. Thus, all trespassers—criminal or more innocent—are owed the same duty by a property owner: to refrain from willfully or intentionally harming the trespasser. Id. at 661.
The Defendant also argued that force can be used to protect an individual and his home. Id. at 660. This is true; however, when the homeowner is not present, the danger is not life vs. life, but loss of property vs. life. Id. Thus, the court would not condone the use of force that may have been lawful had Defendant been present. Id. By using the spring-gun, Defendant had willfully harmed Plaintiff, directly breaching his duty to the criminal trespasser. Id. at 661.