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Trespass to Chattels vs. Conversion

If someone wrongfully took your personal property, you may be able to bring an intentional tort cause of action against them. Under tort law, this is a civil claim for a harmful act that was done with purpose. But which type of tort would be a valid claim?

Both trespass to chattels and conversion deal with wrongfully interfering with a person's personal property. Neither concerns bodily harm. Although they are similar claims, there are significant differences that you should know before filing a lawsuit. Read on to learn about the similarities and differences between the tort of trespass to chattels and the tort of conversion.

What Are Trespass to Chattels and Conversion?

Trespass to chattels and conversion are both intentional torts. They both refer to a wrongful, intentional interference with the possession of someone's personal property. Trespass to chattels and conversion deal only with personal property. They do not apply to the interference of real property or any interest in land. See trespass to land as a separate topic.

Both trespass to chattels and conversion are general intent torts. As opposed to specific intent torts, general intent torts do not consider whether the tortfeasor (wrongdoer) knew their conduct would result in the specific harm. In other words, it's enough that harm would result from the defendant's actions. As a result, mistake of ownership is not a valid defense to trespass to chattels and conversion.

Common Elements of Trespass to Chattels and Conversion

Proving trespass to chattels and conversion involves the following elements:

  1. The plaintiff owns or has the right to possess the personal property at issue;
  2. The tortfeasor intentionally interfered with the plaintiff's property;
  3. The tortfeasor deprived the plaintiff of possession or use of the property at issue; and
  4. The wrongful interference caused damages to the plaintiff

Difference Between Trespass to Chattels and Conversion

It's easy to confuse trespass to chattels with conversion—they both involve interference with personal property. Here's a look at the differences between the two torts:

The Degree of Interference

The main difference between trespass to chattels and conversion is the degree of interference. Conversion occurs when a person uses or alters a piece of personal property belonging to someone else without the owner's consent. So, conversion involves substantial interference with a property owner's possessory interest. The degree of interference for conversion must be so serious that the tortfeasor, or person accused of committing the tort, may be required to pay the full value of the property.

According to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a court may consider the following factors to determine the seriousness of the interference in a conversion case:

  • The extent and duration of the tortfeasor's exercise of dominion or control
  • The tortfeasor's intent to deprive the owner of their right of possession
  • The tortfeasor's good faith
  • The extent and duration of the resulting interference with the owner's right of control
  • The harm done to the chattel (moveable property)
  • The inconvenience and expense caused to the owner

On the other hand, a trespass to chattels is an act that falls short of conversion. It doesn't require that damage be done to the full value of property with complete loss of use. The tortfeasor is responsible only to the extent of:

  • The damage done from dispossessing another of the chattel (dispossession); or
  • Using or intermeddling with a chattel in the possession of another; or
  • Damaging the chattel

In other words, trespass to chattel doesn't require that the property be taken away or damaged beyond use. Some interference with possession of a chattel would be enough. Accordingly, it has an easier damage threshold in comparison to conversion.

Remedies: Trespass to Chattels vs. Conversion

As mentioned above, an ordinary conversion case will require the tortfeasor to pay the property's full market value to its owner. What if the owner is not fully deprived of the property, and it can be returned to the owner? The tortfeasor would be liable for the actual damage. This is the usual remedy for trespass to chattels. As opposed to paying the full value of the property, the tortfeasor will pay the diminished value of the chattel.

For example, suppose someone uses your bicycle without your permission. The frame gets banged up, but the bike is still usable. Now, suppose another person steals and sets your bicycle on fire, completely destroying it. In the first scenario, which is more akin to trespass to chattel, you might recover some money to fix the frame. In the second situation, the property is reduced to ashes, and you've been completely deprived of it. A conversion claim would be more appropriate, and you may be able to recover the entire value of the bike rather than just nominal damages.

Get Legal Help With Your Conversion or Trespass to Chattels Claim

Differentiating between tortious trespass to chattels and conversion can be confusing. Applying the relevant elements to a case can be difficult. Professional legal knowledge and skills are often key to evaluating an intentional tort claim. Start working on your case today by getting legal advice from an experienced personal injury attorney in your area. They're only a phone call away.

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