Your neighbor took your bike without asking and now the frame is bent. The bike isn’t rideable in this condition and the neighbor refuses to replace it. You could file a criminal complaint with the police, but that won’t get your bike fixed.
When you want to reclaim the value of your personal property that was damaged or altered by some else’s unauthorized use, you can file a lawsuit for conversion. This intentional tort is the civil law equivalent of a criminal theft charge. Conversion can occur when someone, acting without your consent, does any of the following with your property:
- Takes and fails to return your property
- Sells your property
- Substantially changes your property, like cutting down trees to use the wood in construction
- Severely damages or misuses your property
What Type of Property
Wrongful conversion only applies to physical personal property, such as a bike, cell phone, or computer. Most anything you own that’s moveable can be subject to conversion. Real estate isn’t moveable, so it’s not covered.
Property without physical substance, such as trade secrets or intellectual property rights, are not usually subject to conversion unless they have been merged into a physical form like stocks or insurance policies. However, some state courts are trending toward recognizing intangible property as personal property.
The tort of conversion covers a much broader range of interference with property than just loss of physical possession. For a successful conversion claim, you have the burden of proving that:
- You have a legal right to the property.
- Defendant intentionally interfered with your possession.
- Defendant’s actions are the legal cause of your loss of property.
Since conversion is an intentional tort, you must show that the defendant purposefully took your property in a manner that interfered with your interest in the property. It’s not necessary to prove that the defendant intended to harm the property.
You may need to show a demand for the return of your property or reasonable compensation was made before filing your lawsuit. However, an actual demand and refusal is not required if the property was wrongfully taken without your consent, or the defendant’s actions make it clear that demand would be useless.
Type of Damages for Conversion
Damages for a conversion claim are based on a principle of fairness. If someone takes or otherwise seriously interferes with your use or enjoyment of personal property, you should be compensated. You are also entitled to recover costs directly associated with the loss of the property. For example, you could recover lost wages if your neighbor damaged your bike and you couldn’t get to work.
In setting damages, the court looks at the value of the property at the time of the conversion. So if your neighbor damaged a $1,700 racing bike you bought five years ago, the court will set the damages at fair market value for a used racing bike. This can be frustrating because it may not provide enough compensation to replace the property.
State laws determine what damages are available and how damages are calculated. Some courts allow for punitive damages or exemplary damages to punish malicious or fraudulent behavior.
Time Limits on Filing a Conversion Claim
The period in which a lawsuit must be filed is known as a statute of limitations. Each state sets its own statutes of limitations for civil cases. Generally, intentional tort claims must be filed within three to six years of occurrence. If you file your conversion claim after the statute of limitations has run, your claim will be denied.
Contact an Attorney about Your Conversion Claims
Many conversion claims can be filed in small claims court without the help of an attorney. But if your claim concerns valuable property or your ownership of the property is in dispute, an experienced personal injury attorney can help protect your interests. Contact one today.
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