Conversion of property is where a person deprives another of the use or possession of personal property. Also known as “trespass to chattel”, conversion claims usually involve personal property or “chattel”, not real property.
The essence of most conversion claims is that the defendant interfered with the plaintiff’s ability to use the property. This means that damages are often calculated according to the loss of use, rather than the loss of possession. Accordingly, damages in a conversion claim can sometimes get complicated.
In some cases, returning the property to its rightful owner is considered the appropriate legal remedy. However, a plaintiff can often recover damages for:
- The lost time in which they could have used the property
- Losses associated with increases in the property’s values
- Losses connected with interest rates on the property
- Lost business, for example if company machinery was converted
- Punitive damages, if the conversion also involved factors of malice, ill will, disregard of rights, or recklessness on the part of the defendant
Several factors go into the calculation of damages in a conversion case. These include:
- Time of the Conversion: The value of the property is usually calculated according to the fair market value at the time of the conversion
- Place of the Conversion: Fair market value is also determined according to the place that the conversion occurred in. In some cases, if the defendant transported the property to a different region, and this resulted in an increase in the property’s value, a court will award the higher amount
- Unique use/Sentimental value: If the plaintiff had a unique use for the property, or if the property had sentimental value to them, the court may consider this and issue a higher damages award.
Like any lawsuit, damage awards must be proven with “reasonable certainty”. That is, if the property value cannot be determined, or if the property itself cannot be identified, a court may choose not to issue a damages award.
A common situation is where an item of property is converted, and then its value increases during the time that the defendant is wrongfully holding it. In many states, courts will allow the plaintiff to recover damages based on the highest value of the property during the time of conversion. This is true even if the property appreciates in value, and then depreciates later.
For example, suppose that a defendant converted a plaintiff’s laptop which was worth $800 at the time of conversion. At one point during the conversion, market values placed the laptop at $1,000. Later on, market values for the lap top fell to $700.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the plaintiff may be able to receive a damages award for the $1,000 figure, rather than the $700 figure, or even the $800 amount. This is because of the possibility that the plaintiff could have sold the laptop for $1,000, if the defendant had not converted the property.
Of course, this will depend on the jurisdiction as well as the facts involved in the case. Generally speaking, most courts will at least award damages for the value of the property at the time of conversion.
Conversion lawsuits can sometimes be very complicated. As you can see, damages in a conversion case depend largely on the rules and laws in a particular area. It may be necessary to consult with a lawyer if you have a conversion claim. Your real estate attorney can help you obtain the appropriate damages award that will allow you to recover your losses.