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 someone 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
This article discusses which type of property can be converted, proving conversion, and damages available to those affected by conversion.
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, or real property, 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 (which is considered "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.
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 plaintiff's 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 are not required if the property was wrongfully taken without the 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 are entitled 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.
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 because it may not provide enough compensation from the wrongdoer to replace the converted property.
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 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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