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, nor is there any guarantee that the cops will actually do their job.
When you want to reclaim the value of your personal property that was damaged or altered by someone else's unauthorized use, you can file a tort law claim for conversion. In personal injury law, 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 private property
- Sells your property
- Substantially changes your property, like cutting down trees to use the wood in construction
- Severely damages or misuses your property
In these types of cases, it's important to note that it doesn't matter if the defendant acted as a reasonable person. It also doesn't matter if no serious injuries occurred.
This article discusses which type of property can be converted, proving conversion, and property damages available to those affected by conversion.
Types of Property Subject to Conversion
Wrongful conversion only applies to physical personal property, such as a bike, motor vehicle, cell phone, or computer. Most anything you own that's moveable can be subject to conversion. Real estate or real property isn't moveable, so it's not covered.
Property without physical substance, such as trade secrets or intellectual property rights, is not usually subject to conversion. They may be if 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 (which is "trespass to chattel"). For a successful conversion claim, you have the burden of proving the elements of conversion:
- You (the plaintiff) have a legal right to the property (you are the owner of the property).
- The defendant (wrongdoer) intentionally interfered with your possession of the property.
- The defendant's actions are the legal cause of your loss of property.
- The defendant converted the property for the defendant's own use.
Conversion is an intentional tort. So, 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 plaintiff's property. Even though conversion claims are brought as parts of personal injury cases, it's also not necessary that there be any pain and suffering, emotional distress, or physical harm to an injured person. Rather, it's enough that deprivation of their belongings itself injures the property owner.
You may need to show a demand for the return of your property. You may need to show reasonable compensation was made before filing your personal injury lawsuit for conversion. However, an actual demand and refusal are not required if the property was wrongfully taken without the property owner's consent, or the defendant's actions make it clear that the demand would be useless.
Type of Damages for Conversion
Damages for a conversion claim are based on the principle of fairness. If someone takes or otherwise seriously interferes with your use or enjoyment of personal property, you have a cause of action as the owner of the property. You have an entitlement to recover costs directly associated with the loss of the property.
For example, you could recover lost wages if your neighbor took your bike without permission and damaged your bike beyond repair. If the stolen property—for instance, an asthma inhaler—was important to your health, you might even try to sue for medical bills or medical expenses. You may also attempt to recover non-economic damages. This could be, for example, the inconvenience or mental suffering of losing a sentimentally-important possession like a family heirloom.
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 means that you may not get the full value of the property or the return of the property. This can be frustrating. It may not provide enough compensation from the wrongdoer to replace the converted property.
In many states such as New York and California, legal remedies at the common law have been replaced with statutory laws. State laws determine an owner's rights, what damages are available, and how damages are calculated. Some courts allow for punitive damages or exemplary damages to punish wrongdoers for their malicious or fraudulent behavior.
Time Limits on Filing a Conversion Claim
The period in which a person must file a lawsuit is a statute of limitations. Each state sets its own statutes of limitations for civil cases. Generally, a person must file an intentional tort claim within one to six years of occurrence. But you should check with a personal injury lawyer in your state to be sure.
If you file your conversion claim after the statute of limitations has run, your claim will be denied. These time limits aren't just for conversion claims—they apply across a wide variety of cases, including:
- Medical malpractice
- Product liability
- Wrongful death
- Breach of contract
- Car accidents
No matter the type of case you're dealing with, you should always pay special attention to your filing deadline to avoid losing out on your claim.
Contact an Attorney About Your Conversion Claims
Many conversion claims can be filed in small claims court without the help of an attorney. But you won't recover much that way.
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. They can help you fight insurance companies and unlock real value in your case by filing a lawsuit, if necessary.
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