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Intentional Torts Against Property

Premises Liability Lawyer

There are two main torts that can be committed against a person’s personal property. The first is trespass to chattels, which occurs when a person interferes with another person’s personal property. The second is conversion, which occurs when a person permanently dispossess another of their personal property. 

Trespass to Chattels 

Trespass to chattels is an intentional tort involving another person’s personal property. Chattel is just another word for personal property, such as a computer or a pet. A trespass to chattels occurs when a person interferes with another’s lawful possession of their personal property. A premises liability lawyer experienced in intentional torts against property will support that trespass to chattels is a separate tort from trespass to land and does not apply to real property or any interest in land. 

A plaintiff bringing a claim for trespass to chattels must prove the following elements: 

  1. The defendant intended to interfere with their property. The plaintiff does not necessarily need to prove that the defendant intended to cause any harm but does need to show that they intended to interfere.
  2. The defendant did so without the owner’s consent. 
  3. The defendant interfered with the plaintiff’s chattel. A person commits a trespass to chattel by (a) dispossessing another of the chattel, (b) using or interfering with the chattel, or (c) damaging the chattel. 

Mistake of ownership is not a defense to trespass to chattels. In other words, it does not matter whether the person committing the trespass does not know that the chattel belongs to someone else. As long as the person interferes with or damages another person’s property, they have committed a trespass to chattels. 

Some examples of situations where a trespass to chattels occurs are: 

  • The chattel is impaired in its condition, quality or value;
  • The owner of the chattel is deprived of its use for a significant period of time;
  • The owner or something in which the owner has a protected interest is harmed. 

In a trespass to chattel lawsuit, the plaintiff can recover damages for the diminished value of the chattel that resulted from the defendant’s trespass. 

Conversion 

Conversion is also an intentional tort that occurs when someone interferes with another person’s property, but unlike trespass to chattels, conversion results in the owner being permanently dispossessed of their property. Conversion is the civil equivalent of criminal theft. Like trespass to chattels, conversion only applies to personal property, such as a computer or a pet, and is not applicable to real estate or to interests in land.

Conversion occurs when someone does any of the following to another’s personal property without the owner’s consent: 

  • Takes the property and does not return it;
  • Sells the property; 
  • Makes substantial changes to the property; or
  • Severely damages the property.

To bring a successful conversion claim, a plaintiff must prove three elements: 

  1. They have a legal right to the property;
  2. The defendant intentionally interfered with their possession of the property; and 
  3. The defendant’s actions were the legal cause of the plaintiff’s loss of the property.

Because conversion is an intentional tort, it is imperative that the plaintiff prove that the defendant intended to interfere with their property in a manner that was so substantial that it permanently dispossessed the plaintiff of their property. However, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant intended to damage the property.

The plaintiff in a conversion lawsuit can recover damages for the monetary value of their property, as well as for any other economic damages they suffered as a result of the conversion. For instance, a plaintiff can recover lost wages if their car is stolen and they can no longer get to work.

Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on intentional torts against property.