Trespass to Chattels

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Deprivation of, or eviction from, possession of property.

Interference with a property owner’s use of his property.

Immediate Possession:
The Plaintiff must be in actual possession or have the right of immediate possession in order to bring a suit.

Where damage to property is more severe than an in an ordinary trespass, the plaintiff can sue to have the defendant forcibly purchase the property from him for its full value.

Person who receives temporary possession of property, but not ownership of that property (e.g., to watch it for the owner).

Trespass to Chattels is defined as committing any act of direct physical interference with a chattel possessed by another without lawful justification. 

To make a case for Trespass to Chattels, the plaintiff must show that the defendant made a volitional movement that resulted in either:

  1. Dispossession of, or
  2. Intermeddling with,

the plaintiff’s personal property.

Dispossession is where the defendant actually asserts ownership over the chattel. 

Intermeddling is merely interfering with the plaintiff's use of his chattel.

The plaintiff must show that the defendant intended to treat the property in the manner that he did.

As in Trespass to Land, it makes no difference that the defendant might have mistaken the plaintiff’s property for his own. For example:

Herman sees his copy of “War and Peace” sitting on a table. He picks up the book, puts it in his bag and goes home. In fact, the book belongs to Leon and Herman has mistaken it for his own copy. In this case, Herman is liable for a trespass to chattels because he intended to take Leon’s book, even though his action was based on a reasonable mistake.

In order to bring suit, the plaintiff must be in actual possession of, or have the right of immediate possession to, the chattel. 

Further, the dispossession or intermeddling must have been caused by the defendant’s volitional act in order for the trespass to be actionable. 

Unlike trespass to land, there needs to be actual damages incurred by the plaintiff in order for him to sue. However, this only applies to intermeddling. In the case of dispossession, the plaintiff can sue even if he did not incur any actual damages. For example:

  1. Hugh takes Larry's magazine with the intent of reading it and then returning it. Hugh returns the magazine to Larry in the same condition it was in when he borrowed it. Since this is intermeddling and there are no actual damages, Hugh is not liable.
  2. Hugh steals the magazine but Larry, having already read it, has no more use for it. This is dispossession and Hugh is liable even though there are no actual damages.

Closely related to the concept of Trespass to Chattels is the concept of conversion. The same elements that apply to Trespass to Chattels apply to conversion. However, there are two important differences. First, a conversion suit is usually brought in cases where the damage done to Plaintiff’s possession is more severe that in a trespass case. See Zaslow v. Kroenert, 29 Cal.2d 541 (1946). Second, a verdict for the plaintiff in a conversion suit is effectively a forced sale of the damaged chattel to the defendant.

A conversion suit can occur for either dispossession or intermeddling, however, once again, conversion suits are brought in cases where the damage done to the property is more severe than in a trespass case. (Please note that what "more severe means is usually determined on a case by case basis.) For example:

  1. Daphne hits Marty’s dog Eddie with her car. Eddie suffers a broken leg. This would be an actionable trespass to chattels and Marty would be awarded damages commensurate with the harm done by Daphne.
  2. Daphne hits Marty’s dog Eddie with her car. Eddie dies. This would be an actionable conversion (note the increased severity of the damage done to Eddie). Marty would be awarded Eddie’s full value but Daphne would now own Eddie’s body.

In some cases, conversion actions can be sustained even if there is no damage to the object, when a party is entrusted with property and fails to return it in a timely manner. See Russell-Vaughn Ford v. Rouse, 206 So.2d 371 (Ala. 1968).

Thus, a conversion suit can be brought when a bailee (a party who receives temporary possession of chattel but not ownership) misuses property entrusted to him. For example:

Larry borrows Kevin’s car to go fishing. Larry decides to take the car on an overnight camping trip instead. While Larry is in the woods, a tree falls on the car and seriously damages it. Larry will be liable for a conversion. As a borrower of Kevin’s car, Larry is a bailee. Larry had permission to use Kevin’s car but he did not have permission to take the car on an overnight camping trip. By exceeding the authority he had to use the car, Larry becomes liable for the damage to the car, even though it was not Larry’s fault that the car got damaged

In addition, buying or selling stolen goods, even where the defendant acted in good faith and has no idea that the goods are stolen, represents an actionable conversion. 

Finally, misdelivering a chattel, even in good faith, will result in an actionable conversion.

As previously mentioned, a successful action for conversion will result in the forced sale of the chattel to the defendant. In this situation, the defendant receives the damaged property and the plaintiff receives the market value of his property at the time the conversion was committed.

If, however, the property has a fluctuating value, the plaintiff will recover the highest value the property attained during the time between the conversion and the verdict. 

Additionally, in a case of dispossession, the Plaintiff can sue not only for the return of his property, but also for "loss of use" of his chattel.

Here is a chart to help distinguish the differences between trespass to chattels and conversion: 

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