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Defenses to Conversion

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What is “Conversion”?

Conversion occurs when one person deprives another of their rights to use or possess property.  Conversion is also known as “trespass to chattel”.  It usually has to do with personal property (chattel) rather than real property.  A person can be held liable for conversion if they intentionally take the property of another, or deprives them of using it without their permission.

In a conversion claim, the focus is not so much the wrongful acquisition of property.  Instead, the focus is on the property owner being deprived of their property.  Thus, a person who is lawfully in possession of the personal property can still be found liable for conversion if they exceed the limits of their authority or control over the property. 

The legal remedies for conversion typically require the interfering party to return the goods to their true owner, or to reimburse them for the property’s value.  Or, the liable party may have to reimburse the owner for losses during the time in which they were deprived of the property, which may be more or less than the property’s actual value.

What are the Defenses to Conversion?

As with most violations, there may be several defenses available to a party who has been accused of conversion.  Some of the more common defenses to conversion include:

  • Abandoned property:  It may be a defense if the owner actually abandoned the property.  Usually the owner needs to demonstrate the intent not to reclaim the property, and some time must pass between the owner abandoning the property and another party claiming it
  • Authority of Law:  If the accused party was operating under authority of law, or by court order, it could serve as a defense
  • Consent/Approval:  If the plaintiff approved of the defendant’s actions, they will likely not be able to recover damages in a conversion lawsuit.  The consent must be given knowingly and voluntarily (not forced)
  • Statute of limitations:  The injured party must file suit with the court within a certain time period after the violation (or after discovery of the violation).  This time period is known as the “statute of violations” and can be anywhere from 2-3 years depending on the jurisdiction.  After this time, a lawsuit can no longer be filed
  • Interest of Defendant”:  Some states do not allow a conversion claim if the defendant has partial ownership rights in the property
  • Lack of Value:  In some jurisdictions, a conversion claim cannot be filed if the property does not have any monetary value.  This rule may be limited however, and some states allow a claim to be filed even if the property value is minimal
  • Unidentifiable property:  If the property cannot be properly identified, it may serve as a defense to conversion
  • Privilege:  In some circumstances, a person may sometimes be “privileged” to commit an act that would be considered conversion.  An example of such privilege is where the conversion is necessary to protect the person’s own property or to avoid physical harm
  • Waiver:  A property owner can sometimes waive their right to file a conversion claim

Each of these defenses is associated with various elements of proof that must be met by the defendant.  These can vary by jurisdiction, and according to the nature of the claim.

Which Defenses are NOT Available in a Conversion Claim?

In most jurisdictions the following types of defenses are not available in a conversion claim:

  • Contributory negligence
  • Assumption of risk
  • Good faith/due care
  • Some equitable defenses like estoppel and unclean hands

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Defenses to Conversion?

If you have been accused of conversion, it is to your advantage to work closely with a real estate lawyer.  Your attorney will be able to discuss the defenses that may be available to you.  These can depend on several factors, which can sometimes be difficult to understand.  However, an experienced attorney will be able to explain how these apply to your claim.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 04-11-2018 02:01 AM PDT

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