Defenses to Conversion

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 What Is Conversion?

Conversion is an intentional tort characterized as knowingly taking or using the personal property of another that deprives the owner of their rights to the property. While the verbiage may differ slightly between state laws, the elements to prove conversion are as follows:

  • You must have changed another person’s property;
  • The change prevents the owner from using their property altogether or in a way that the owner wanted to use the property;
  • Damage is caused to the property owner.

Some conversion examples are taking someone’s computer and stealing it away so the owner cannot use it and cutting down a fruit tree on another person’s land.

Is Conversion a Basic Tort?

Conversion is denying another’s right to use or possess personal property. Note that the property at issue is not “real property,” which, in turn, is usually represented as land and attached improvements on the land. All other property is typically deemed “personal property” or “chattels.” Rights to creative property and artistic creations involve protecting “intellectual property.”

Conversion is usually defined as other interference with a person’s right to property without the owner’s consent and lawful justification. A conversion happens when a person without authority or permission intentionally takes personal property or deprives another of possession of the personal property. It is a tort that allows the injured party to seek legal relief.

What Are Some Defenses to a Claim of Conversion?

You may have a defense if you are sued for conversion, depending on the circumstances. Some typical defenses to a claim of conversion include:

  • Abandonment of the property;
  • Authority of Law: This refers to when a person operates under the authority of law (such as a law enforcement officer) or by court order;
  • Consent;
  • Lack of Value: Some states will not permit 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 a conversion. An example is if the action was necessary to protect the person’s property or avoid physical harm.

What Are Remedies for Conversion?

The legal remedies for conversion typically require the interfering party to return the property to the owner or reimburse the owner for the property’s value. 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 property’s actual value.

Can You Face Criminal Charges for Conversion?

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 prerequisites for theft vary from state to state, they tend to observe the same essential 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.

What Is the Essential Law?

Conversion is considered the civil side of theft, i.e., the inappropriate taking of non-real property from another without due power. Conversion is the civil wrong done, while theft is the criminal act. There is no breach of trust, unlike embezzlement, though typically, if there is a breach of trust, actions for embezzlement and conversion are brought against the defendant. Suppose one suffers from the wrongful taking of property of any kind. In that case, one can complain to the police and ask that criminal charges be brought or commence a civil suit for damages predicated on the tort of conversion.

The use of a thing without the owner’s license or a wrongful sale of it is a conversion. A legal action predicated on the tort of conversion may be maintained by persons having the immediate right to possession of the article converted.

A conversion may be perpetrated by unreasonably withholding possession from one who has the right to it. The elements of conversion are:

  • The plaintiff’s ownership or right to possession of the property;
  • The defendant’s conversion by wrongful act inconsistent with the property rights of the plaintiff; and
  • Damages.

A person not in lawful possession of a chattel (non-real property) may perpetrate conversion by:

  • Purposefully dispossessing the lawful possessor of the chattel,
  • Purposefully using a chattel in his possession without authority so to use it,
  • Obtaining a chattel under an unauthorized sale with intent to acquire for himself or another a proprietary interest in it,
  • Disposing of a chattel by an unauthorized sale with intent to transfer a proprietary interest in it, or
  • Refusing to relinquish a chattel on-demand to a person entitled to lawful possession.

Conversion is a willful tort. The intent that must be proven is to exercise dominion and control over the plaintiff’s property in a manner inconsistent with the plaintiff’s rights. Nevertheless, intent or purpose of doing wrong is not required to demonstrate conversion, merely intent on seizing the property. Thus, even if the defendant thought they had rights to the property, they have converted the property wrongfully if they were wrong and intentionally seized it.

A conversion is usually proved in one of three ways:

  • By tortious taking;
  • By use or appropriation of the use of the person in possession, indicating a claim of right in opposition to rights of the owner; or
  • Refusal to give up possession to the owner on demand.

Since the act must be consciously done, neither negligence, active or passive, nor a breach of contract, even though it results in injury to, or loss of, specific property, includes a conversion. Therefore, it follows that mistake, good faith, and due care are ordinarily immaterial and cannot be defenses in action for conversion. This is necessary for the defendant to comprehend. If you consciously take possession, that comprises the tort even if you were mistaken.
It does not matter if you were negligent or if you felt you had a valid right to the property. It is not required to demonstrate you wished to do wrong, only that you knowingly took possession and had no right to do so.

Wrongful conversion applies only to personal property. Personal property consists of every kind of property that is not real. Therefore, an action for conversion typically lies only concerning personal property, and real estate is not subject to conversion.

Additionally, personal property is the subject of conversion only if tangible or tangible proof of a title to intangible or real property. Money can be the topic of conversion if the money in question can be determined.

The nature of conversion is not the acquisition of property but the wrongful deprivation of that property from its valid owner. And note that one who is lawfully in possession of the property may nonetheless be responsible for conversion for exceeding the scope of authority for that lawful possession when the use especially transgresses the valid owner’s right of control.

Do I Need to Contact an Attorney?

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 on whether your action constituted one or both of these property torts.


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