Conversion is an intentional tort that is defined as knowingly taking or using the personal property of another that deprives the owner of their rights to the property. While the wording may vary slightly between state law, the elements to prove conversion are generally as follows:
- You must have changed another person’s property;
- The change prevents the owner from using their property either altogether or in a way that the owner wanted to use the property; and
- Damage is caused to the property owner.
To simplify this concept, some examples of conversion are 1) taking someone’s computer and locking it away so the owner cannot use it and 2) cutting down a fruit tree on another person’s land.
Depending on the circumstances, you may have a defense if you are sued for conversion. Some common defenses to a claim of conversion include:
- Abandonment of the property;
- Authority of Law: This refers to when a person operates under authority of law (such as a law enforcement officer) or by court order;
- Lack of Value: Some states will not allow a claim of conversion if the property has little to no monetary value; and
- Privilege: In some circumstances, a person may be considered privileged to commit an act that would be considered conversion. An example is if the action was necessary to protect the person’s own property or to avoid physical harm.
The legal remedies for conversion typically require the interfering party to return the property to the owner, or to reimburse the owner for the value of the property. Alternatively, the interfering party could be ordered to reimburse the owner for the value of the time the owner was deprived of the property. This is harder to calculate and may even end up being more than the actual value of the property.
Conversion is a civil claim, but it is possible to face criminal charges for theft. While the owner of the converted item can decide to “press charges,” it is ultimately up to the prosecutor/government if they want to charge the defendant with theft.
While the requirements for theft vary from state to state, they tend to follow the same basic elements. But, every case of theft has a unique set of circumstances, so it is possible, but unlikely, that you can be charged with theft in one state and not charged with theft in another.
If you are sued for conversion, you should speak to a local real estate attorney to determine if you have any of the above defenses available in your situation. If you do, a lawyer can help argue the defenses in court and attempt to get the case against you dropped.
In addition, conversion may be mistaken for trespass to chattel. Although they are similar these are two separate torts. A lawyer could advise you as to whether your action constituted one or both of these property torts.