Today’s going to be a bit of a departure from my normal routine. I saw something very interesting and I’ve been thinking about it pretty much non-stop, so I’m going to write my thoughts. I’ll warn you, I’m headed WAY out of my wheelhouse on this one, as you’ll see. But stepping out of your area of expertise is good on occasion, and I’m comfortable with being wrong or misguided as long as I’m thinking. So here we go.

First, the thing itself – a fantastic episode of Legal Eagle (as they mostly are):

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, I’ll give you the basic spoilers. Back in the early ’70s, a couple owned a farmhouse in Iowa; a second home that was not where they lived. Because of its isolation, it kept getting burgled and the Brineys (the couple) were at their wits’ end. So Mr. Briney set up a shotgun trap in an upstairs bedroom where valuables were kept (this is in addition to countless locks, signs, etc.). The place gets robbed anyway by a guy named Katko, who gets his leg (mostly) blown off by the shotgun trap, and is in a cast/brace for two years. He serves time in prison for the breaking and entering, but then sues Briney because of the trap.

Spoiler: He wins. The Brineys had to pay not only his medical expenses, but also punitive damages equal to an additional 50% of the medical cost.

Now, here are my thoughts rattling around. I think the eventual outcome of this case was unjust, but not for what might seem like the obvious reasons. Basically, the reason the case was decided in the burglar’s favor was because it’s unreasonable to set up life-threatening booby traps in unoccupied homes. If there’s no inherent threat to life, it’s wrong to create a trap that could not only dis-proportionately punish guilty people, but also quite possibly injure or kill (relatively) innocent people, like perhaps kids just exploring an old farmhouse or something.

I do not disagree with that. While I believe that you have the right to defend your property, I also believe in the limitations set out above – the likelihood of harming an innocent third party being the main one. I mean heck, the place could have caught on fire and a firefighter could have been in there and gotten shot in the face; that’s bad. All sorts of bad outcomes could happen there.

That’s not why I think the outcome was unjust. The reason I think the outcome was unjust is because Katko should not be the recipient of any money.

The central argument used to win the case is that “booby traps are bad,” and so you should be punished for using them. Sure. But that punishment should be a criminal matter, not a civil one. If Briney owed a debt, it should be to society, not the burglar.

Think about it. Katko paid for his crime by serving time and paying a fine. But he didn’t pay the fine to Briney, even though it was Briney who was robbed. And he did his time in jail, not in service to the Brineys. But then he got paid for burglarizing the house (well in excess of the money he would have gotten from the stolen goods!), and that seems on the face to be a miscarriage of justice.

Katko was injured during an attempt to wrong Briney; both legally and morally. If Briney had been forced to pay a fine or even serve some time himself, I don’t think I’d have further complaint. But Katko deserved no recompense; his fate was the result of his own actions, and those actions were unjust. That’s the essential combo – a firefighter who got shot would also have been harmed “because of his own actions,” but those actions would not have been unjust.

Was Katko’s “punishment” in excess of his crimes? Certainly. Breaking & entering doesn’t deserve a lifetime crippling injury. And Mr. Briney was guilty of that. Even had the judgement been simply medical costs to make Katko whole, I might not think ill of the decision. But $10,000 in punitive damages to the man who was injured while robbing your home is clearly a miscarriage.

Or at least, I think so! I’m about as far from a legal scholar as you can get, wandering far, far afield of my normal thinkin’ grounds. But that’s fun – even more so because I’m not emotionally invested in this line of thinking, and thus am wide open to counter-arguments, other thoughts, fun debates, and the like. Have a different opinion – or even a fun other thing I should watch? Let me know!

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