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What Is a ‘Conversion’ under Tort Law, and Who Can Sue for Conversion?


Video Transcript

“0:00 What is a conversion under tort law? The

0:03 tort of conversion is where someone

0:06 actually converts your property to their

0:10 own use. It’s similar to a trespass to a

0:13 chattel except that in the tort of

0:16 conversion the property is completely

0:18 dominated and maintained. And it’s never

0:21 going to be returned and therefore it’s

0:23 been converted and because of that you

0:27 are allowed to sue for the full value of

0:29 that property and oftentimes if the

0:33 property is not transferred to a bona

0:35 fide purchaser for value you can still

0:39 go ahead and get a court order to get

0:41 the property back. “

Conversion occurs when a person exercises his rights over another’s property in a manner inconsistent with the individual’s right of possession. Let’s explore the intentional tort of conversion with Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys.

What Is a Conversion under Tort Law?

Conversion refers to the improper possessions of another’s property without due authority or a lawful justification. 

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It is a civil wrong for which the victims can pursue a civil lawsuit to recover damages under the intentional tort of conversion. The tort applies to chattels (personal property), not real property such as land.

A plaintiff must have to prove the following elements of conversion if they bring a conversion claim against the defendant:

  • The plaintiff had ownership or right to the property
  • The defendant intentionally interfered with the plaintiff’s personal property
  • The interference by the defendant deprived the plaintiff of possession or use of their personal property
  • The defendant’s interference resulted in damages.

There are different ways a person may commit the act of conversion, and these include the following:

  • By wrongfully taking: A person intending to assert dominion over another person by taking their goods without due authority is an act of conversion. Taking chattels without asserting permanent or temporary dominion is not an act of conversion but can fall under trespass. In M’Combie v. Davies, the defendant with no authority to take the property took the plaintiff’s property and refused to give it back. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating that it was an act of conversion and the defendant had no authority over the property.
  • By parting with goods: A person who, without lawful justification, deprives another of their property by giving it to a third party would lead to a conversion claim. The second person does not have rights to the property and cannot provide rights or possession to a third person. For example, the person who hires a dress for a wedding, wears the dress, and later sells it to another person is an act of conversion and the wrongful act occurs when the person gives the third party the property rights.
  • By sale: A person who fraudulently takes another’s property and sells it for their or the other party’s benefit will be guilty of conversion. For example, when an auctioneer receives goods from another person for sale, they are liable to the property’s true owner. In the case of Jerome v. Bentley & Co, the plaintiff gave a ring to an agent to sell within seven days at a specified price, and if they couldn’t sell it within the stated time, they should return it. The agent sold the ring after seven days at a third of the specified price. The plaintiff sued the defendant, and the court ruled that the agent was not an agent to the plaintiff at the time of sale and therefore did not have the authority to sell it.
  • By keeping: A person taking another’s property and refusing to return it violates their right of dominion over their property, leading to a conversion claim. A reasonable and justified refusal may not constitute a conversion. For example, a post office that refuses to deliver goods to a place that a person did not book does not create grounds for conversion.
  • By destruction: Destruction of a chattel translates to depriving the owner of the use and possession of their personal property. If a person destroys or converts another’s property without their consent, it is an act of conversion. It can include converting cotton to yarn or replacing wine in a bottle with water.
  • By denial of rights: Even if a person is not in the actual or physical possession of another’s property, their act causing another the denial of rights over their property is guilty of conversion. Any act carried out in such a manner that is inconsistent with the owner’s right, along with denial of title to the property owner, falls under conversion.

Who Can Pursue a Conversion Claim?

The immediate or rightful owner deprived of their property can sue in a conversion claim. Interestingly, a person possessing stolen property may also be able to pursue damages.

In Costello v. Chief Constable, the plaintiff sued the police for not returning the car after they took it, believing it was stolen. The police argued that they thought it was a stolen vehicle, justifying their actions of retaining it.

However, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating that the defendant had the temporary right to possession, and once that was over, it was the plaintiff’s right to possession over the car.

What Are the Damages Available in a Conversion Case?

Generally, the remedy for conversion is monetary damages equal to the property’s fair market value at the time of conversion. The plaintiff may also recover any losses arising from the conversion.

For example, if a person takes another’s bicycle without permission for a few days causing them to miss work, and returns it damaged, the plaintiff can pursue the fair market value of the chattel and lost wages for the days they missed work.

Defenses under Conversion Tort Law

The following are some of the defenses under the conversion tort law:

  • Unlawful and illegal acts by the plaintiff
  • Abandonment of property
  • Authority of the law
  • Consent
  • Defendant’s interest (partial ownership of the property.)

How Is Conversion Different than Trespass to Chattels?

Conversion is a wrongful taking of property from the person entitled to immediate possession, while a trespass to chattels is a wrong done to the actual possessor.

Trespass to chattels is a lesser form of conversion, and the defendant is only responsible for the damage to the property. In contrast, the remedy for a conversion case is a full and fair market value of the damaged property.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law

If someone is interfering with your property rights, you may be eligible to bring a conversion claim. Contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation to discuss your legal options.

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