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Trespass to Chattels

Trespass to chattels refers to the use of property without permission of the property owner. In civil law, it falls under common law intentional torts.

Judges have created a body of rules called common law through written court opinions. This includes tort law causes of action. These tort claims, which refer to wrongful actions that cause harm, fall under different categories. When a tortfeasor (wrongdoer) engages in a purposeful act, they may commit an intentional tort.

Under common law, there are different types of intentional torts, including:

Trespass to chattels can be easily confused with the tort of conversion because they both deal with wrongful interference to a possessory interest in personal property. But, conversion involves more substantial interference that may permanently deprive an owner of their property.

In this article, we'll discuss a valid trespass to chattels claim and how it works in a personal injury case.

What Is Trespass to Chattels?

Generally, a trespass refers to wrongfully using another person's property without permission. Under intentional torts, there are two types of trespass:

  1. Trespass to chattels
  2. Trespass to land

Trespass to land is an unlawful entry or use of another person's real estate without the owner's permission or reasonable excuse.

A trespass to chattels is an intentional interference with another person's lawful possession of personal property. A "chattel" refers to any personal property, moving or non-moving. Trespass to chattels does not apply to real property or any interest in land. To prove trespass to chattels, you must show the following elements:

  • Intent to trespass: Merely intending to do the act is enough to show this element of trespass. You don't necessarily need to show intent to harm a specific person.
  • Lack of owner's consent: There must be an unauthorized, unlawful interference, which means the person interfered with or dispossessed the chattel without the owner's permission.
  • Interference of chattels: A person commits a trespass to chattel by (1) dispossessing another of the chattel, (2) using or intermeddling with a chattel in the possession of another, or (3) damaging the chattel. Interference does include dispossession of a chattel, but it must be something short of conversion.

Remember that it doesn't matter if the wrongdoer didn't know the property belonged to you. They might argue that they made a good faith mistake, but they will likely have liability as long as they intend to perform the act. Possessing or damaging the property itself is enough to show interference.

What Is a Valid Trespass to Chattels Claim?

In general and according to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a person will be liable for a trespass to chattels in any of the following situations:

  1. The person dispossesses the other of the chattel
  2. The chattel is impaired as to its condition, quality, or value of the property
  3. The possessor is deprived of the use of the chattel for a substantial time
  4. Bodily harm is caused to the possessor, or harm is caused to some person or thing in which the possessor has a legally protected interest. (This is known as a "causation" element.)

In a trespass to chattels claim, you can only recover actual damages (as opposed to nominal damages). The court measures actual damages by the diminished total value of the chattel that resulted from the defendant's actions. Counts award nominal damages for as low as $1, even when no harm or injury exists.

Sometimes, a tortfeasor's actions are so shocking or egregious that a court may want to award exemplary damages. Also known as punitive damages, these are damages intended to punish and deter reckless action, especially in cases where a reasonable person in the defendant's shoes would have known that actual harm would result.

Example of Trespass to Chattels

Let's say you're watching a movie with your friend, Bob, at his place. After the movie ends, you get up to go home. As you leave, you see a laptop sitting on a coffee table and pick it up, thinking it's yours. The computer belongs to Bob. His laptop is the same model as yours. Even if you genuinely thought the laptop was yours, you're still liable for a trespass to chattels because you intended to take the laptop.

As mentioned above, a mistake of ownership is not a defense against a trespass to chattels. But, to successfully sue you, Bob will have to show that you've done some harm to the laptop or Bob by taking it. Bob won't be able to recover any compensation without showing actual damages. If the computer isn't damaged or Bob wasn't financially harmed while he didn't have the laptop, there will be no actual damages.

Get Your Trespass to Chattels Questions Answered by a Lawyer

If another person or entity has interfered with your property, you may have a valid trespass-to-chattels claim. Trespass to chattels is an old common law tort that was more often used in traditional cases ages ago. As a result, the elements of trespass to chattels can be challenging to apply to a modern-day case. But, an attorney can simplify the process and apply the law correctly to your lawsuit. Consider speaking with an experienced personal injury lawyer who can help you recover your damages.

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