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Intentional Torts: What Is ‘Trespass to Chattels’ under Tort Law?

Video Transcript

“0:00 What is trespass to chattels under tort

0:02 law? Trespass to chattels unlike trespass

0:06 to land in if you think about it,

0:10 chattels and cattle kind of sound the

0:12 same. And that’s for a reason because

0:13 under the English common law it usually

0:16 had to do with someone interfering with

0:18 someone’s cattle so a trespass to

0:20 chattel has now been interpreted –

0:22 meaning trespass to anything that’s

0:25 personal property. Could be someone

0:27 stealing your Mont Blanc pen. Could be 0:30 someone stealing your cellphone. Those

0:31 are all examples of chattel and it’s

0:34 someone’s unreasonable interference with

0:36 that property usually resulting in your

0:38 inability to use it in which the law

0:41 implies a remedy of them giving it back

0:43 and also damages for the time that you

0:46 were dispossessed it. Could be the

0:48 reasonable value of you having to rent a

0:51 new pen. It could be simply that it was

0:54 such a great interference that it would

0:56 have to be the replacement value.”

Under tort law, there are three main categories; strict liability, negligent tort, and intentional torts, and under intentional torts, there are seven different types, including trespass to chattels, which is a type of personal property tort, but can also include real property.

Let’s explore what trespass to chattel means with Ehline Law and our Texas and California personal injury attorneys.

Trespass to chattels unlike trespass to land if you think about it, chattel and cattle kind of sound the same, and that’s for a reason. Under the English common law, it usually had to do with someone interfering with someone cattle.

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So trespass to chattel has now been interpreted to meaning trespass to anything of personal property. Could be someone stealing your Montblanc pen. Could be someone stealing your cell phone. Those are some examples of chattel. If some ones unreasonable interference with that property, usually resulting in your inability to use it, in which the law applies a remedy of them giving it back and also damages for the time you were dispossessed.

What Is ‘Trespass to Chattels’ under Tort Law?

Under tort law, there are two types of trespass:

  1. Trespass to land
  2. Trespass to chattels.

I. Trespass to Land

Trespass to land is when a person enters another individual’s land or “real property,” without their permission or reasonable excuse.

II. Chattels Trespass (aka Personal Property)

On the other hand, trespass to chattels refers to wrongful interference of a person using another’s personal property without their consent.

Intentional Interference

A trespass is, “Any direct and immediate intentional interference with a chattel in the possession of another.” (Prosser.)

Chattel refers to moveable tangible property, such as furniture, clothing, jewelry, art, and more, and intangible personal property, such as trade secrets or intellectual property rights. 

However, chattels do not include real property such as land, ponds, buildings, and reservoirs.

The elements to successfully prove trespass to chattels are as follows:

  • Trespassing intent: The plaintiff must prove that the person intended to trespass, and it is not necessary to show the intent to harm.
  • Lack of consent: For a successful trespass to chattel claim, there needs to be unlaw interference, meaning the defendant did not receive the owner’s consent for trespassing.
  • Intentional interference: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally dispossessed the chattel, impaired its condition, or deprived them of its use for a certain period.

Intentional interference occurs when the person possesses or damages the property, even if they have no knowledge that the property belonged to you.

What Is a Valid Trespass to Chattels Claim?

A person is liable for trespass to chattel in the following situations:

  • They dispossess another person of their chattel
  • They cause damage to the chattel
  • They deprive the chattel’s possessor of its use for a while
  • They caused bodily harm to the possessor
  • They caused harm to a thing that another person has legally protected interest in.

The remedy the court offers under civil law is actual damages, which are often measured by calculating the reduced value of the chattel following the defendant’s actions.

Example of Trespass to Chattels

It may seem confusing going over the legal terminologies pertaining to trespass to chattels, so let’s go over a simple example to explain what it means.

Suppose you’re enjoying a movie with a work colleague, Jack, at their home. After a while, you decide to leave because it’s getting late, but when you’re going, you grab the laptop on the table, thinking it is yours. However, it turns out to be jack’s laptop since Jack has the same laptop as yours. Even if you thought you took your laptop, you are still liable for trespass to chattel since you intended to take the laptop.

You cannot use the mistake of ownership as a defense, but if Jack wants to sue you, they must prove that you caused harm to them or the laptop by taking it. Jack cannot recover compensation without proving the damages that occurred from your actions.

Difference Between Trespass to Chattels and Conversion

What is the difference between the two torts so seemingly similar? Suppose Jack, your colleague, takes your bike without your permission and returns it with a bent frame. Due to its bent frame, you cannot ride the bike, and Jack refuses to pay for the repair costs. You might consider filing a police complaint, but that won’t repair or replace your bike.

The best course of action when you want to reclaim the value of the chattel damaged by someone’s unauthorized use is to pursue a lawsuit for conversion.

It’s easy to confuse trespass to chattels with a lawsuit for conversion since both involve the wrongful taking of personal property and fall under general intent torts. However, there are some differences between the two.

Degree of Interference

The degree of interference is the main difference between the two legal actions. 

A conversion occurs when an individual uses or alters another’s personal property without their consent to such an extent that there is severe damage to the property. 

Certain factors help determine the seriousness of the interference, including the following:

  • The duration of the defendant’s control over the plaintiff’s property
  • The defendant’s intent to deprive the owner of their property
  • The defendant’s good faith
  • The damage to the property
  • The damages to the plaintiff (inconvenience or expense.)

Both trespass to chattels and conversion remain general intent torts. Trespass to chattels is a lesser form of conversion. The defendant is only responsible for the damage done to the plaintiff’s chattel, including dispossession of the plaintiff’s property, using the property for a period of time, and damaging the property.


One typical remedy could be a preliminary injunction, such as when a defendant has hacked your website or online auction, and you are reasonably likely to win your case, as it is an actionable trespass to chattels. (See e.g., Laura Quilter, The Continuing Expansion of Cyberspace Trespass to Chattels , 17 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 421 (2002). For example, in eBay, Inc. v. Bidder ‘ s Edge, Inc. (N.D. Cal. 2000) 100 F. Supp. 2d 1058.


  1. Chattels Claim

When trespass to chattels is found by a court or a jury, the plaintiff can recover the value of “loss of use” of the item and recover the item itself, as well as reasonable repair costs, etc.

Since a conversion case is much greater than a trespass to chattel claim, the defendant must pay the full and fair market value of the property damaged. 

Suppose the property is still use-able and can be returned to the owner. In that case, it becomes a trespass to chattels case where the defendant must only pay actual damages (diminished value of the property) rather than the full value of the chattel or even nominal damages.

“Where the conduct complained of does not amount to a substantial interference with possession or the right thereto, but consists of intermeddling with or use of … the personal property, the owner has a cause of action for trespass” to chattel, but not for conversion].)” (America Online, Inc. v. IMS (E.D. Va. 1998) 24 F. Supp. 2d 548 .) Under conversion, you could even receive an award of intentional infliction of emotional distress damages depending on the specific harm endured and your actual damage.

  1. Trespass to Real Property

Trespass to land can include repair costs, loss of use, and can even have property tax consequences.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law Trespass Law Experts to Cover Your Legally Protected Interest Today

Dispossessing others of their property is uncool. If another person or an entity interferes with your property, you may have a valid trespass to chattels claim. We can help you distinguish each potential cause of action that resulted in your injuries or damages.

If the chattel is impaired, as opposed to outright stolen, a different remedy might apply. Since this tort law is quite old, proving the elements of the claim may be more challenging. It is crucial to speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer to discuss your legal options. Contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation with our legal experts as to the quality or value of your potential case.

It could be the reasonable value, of you having to rent a new pen. It could be that it was such a great interference that it would have to be the replacement value.

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