The Iowa Spring Gun Case: A Study in American Gothic

18 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2013 Last revised: 24 Feb 2015

See all articles by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 1971


A striking analogy can be made between the “American Gothic” painting and the recently decided Iowa case of Katko v Briney. In that case the Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed a verdict for both compensatory and punitive damages in respect of an injury inflicted on the plaintiff by the defendants, who set a spring gun to protect their uninhabited house. The trial jury was instructed that reasonable force could be used in the protection of property, but that in no circumstance would it be permissible to use such force as would take human life or inflict great bodily injury. The trial court felt that such force as the defendants used would be justified only when a trespasser was committing a felony of violence or a felony punishable by death or endangering human life. American law has had a history of consistent difficulties with spring guns set to protect buildings, especially when applied to situations involving injury to persons engaging in criminal activity. This article briefly examines some of the issues involved in the common law’s treatment of spring guns, and suggests possible resolutions of the conflicting interests involved. The paper discusses the place of punitive damages in tort law, and considers whether punitive damages have been abolished by stealth in English common law. In the case Rookes v Barnard punitive damages were held appropriate in only three situations: 1) for oppressive, arbitrary or unconstitutional acts by government servants; 2) where the defendant’s conduct has been calculated by him to make a profit exceeding the probable compensatory damages payable; and 3) where expressly authorised by statute. This decision has not been welcomed in some Commonwealth countries outside England. The primary justifications for awarding punitive damages, punishment and deterrence, are however also the object of the primary criticism of awarding them. Those opposing punitive damages argue that punishment and deterrence are not among the proper objectives of tort law. The idea that tort law should supply punishment for antisocial behaviour to deter similar future behaviour has historical support. The trend in the law of torts in this century, however, has been toward fulfilling a compensatory function. It has been suggested that the defect of “windfall” damages could be cured by making punitive damages a kind of civil fine payable to the government. This would however likely discourage plaintiffs from filing suit in those situations wherein punitive damages are thought to be most useful – cases in which the plaintiff’s actual loss is small but the defendant’s conduct is particularly offensive.

The crucial issue which developed in Briney was a determination of the proper limits of the privilege for defence of property, a defence to intentional tort actions which resembles the privilege of self-defence. The privilege for defence of property is designed to allow property owners to protect their possessions in situations in which aid from the law is not available by the use of force which otherwise would constitute a criminal act. The author considers how the spring gun problem has been treated in Commonwealth countries and concludes that the appropriate way to deal with such a problem is by legislation, which would best promote civilised values if it prohibited spring guns altogether.

Keywords: Katko v Briney, damages, punitive damages, tort law, spring guns

JEL Classification: K13, K14

Suggested Citation

Palmer QC, Sir Geoffrey, The Iowa Spring Gun Case: A Study in American Gothic (1971). 56 Iowa Law Review 121, 1971; Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper no. 45. Available at SSRN:

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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