Bird v Holbrook

Fact pattern and procedural history

Holbrook owned a walled tulip garden which had been the subject of frequent burglaries. In an attempt to capture the burglar, as attested by witnesses, he set a spring gun. This gun discharged when tripped by Bird, a neighbor who was attempting to retrieve a lost peafowl, causing serious injuries. Bird sued for battery.

Questions of law

To what lengths may a property owner go to protect his property? To what standard should passive or active measures be held? Should Holbrook have given notice or warning of the spring gun? Did it matter that Holbrook intended to injure intruders rather than merely deterring them?

Finding

The court held that Holbrook’s intention to injure, rather than deter, was a strong element in finding for Bird. Although the court reviewed multiple prior cases, it then divested itself of them, stating:

“We want no authority in a case like the present; we put it on the principle that it is inhuman to catch a man by means which may maim him or endanger his life, and, as far as human means can go, it is the object of English law to uphold humanity.”

The court did not go so far as to say that a spring gun could not be used, but did state that notice ought to be given when such means of protection are used. It also noted that Bird’s status as a mere trespasser rather than a burglar affected Holbrook’s liability, stating, “if the Defendant had been present, he would not have been authorized even in taking him into custody, and no man can do indirectly that which he is forbidden to do directly.” Because Holbrook intended to cause serious bodily harm to trespassers, he was responsible for whatever was caused indirectly.

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