While you can be sued under tort law for trespass to land, you can also be liable for what is referred to as trespass to chattel. This is defined as the intentional and wrongful interference with another’s personal property. “Chattel” does not include real property.
For example, you are asked to hold onto an antique lamp for another person. They will need the lamp back and it is clear that you are not the owner of the lamp. But out of frustration for the owner of the lamp, you smash it and completely destroy the lamp. This would be an example of trespass to chattel.
If you are sued for trespass to chattel, you may have some defenses available to you. These defenses include consent, public necessity, private necessity and/or privileged invasion. These same defenses are available if you are sued for trespass to land.
If you are sued for trespass to chattel, you may be able to use the following defenses:
- Consent: This is the most common defense to trespass. If the owner of the property gave you permission to use their personal property, you can claim consent. Keep in mind that consent can be given through both words and actions. However, this defense will not work if the consent was induced by fraud or was given by someone who is incompetent, intoxicated or a minor.
- Public Necessity: This defense can be used if you intentionally interferes with another person’s chattel to protect the public. However, if you acted unreasonably when taking another person’s chattel, this defense will not be available to you. An example of when this defense would be available is if you took another person’s gun in order to prevent someone else from shooting up an entire building.
- Private Necessity: This defense can be used when the purpose of using another person’s chattel is to protect your own interests. Private necessity can only be claimed if you were attempting to protect yourself from death or serious bodily harm. As such, this defense is not as commonly used.
- Privileged Invasion to Reclaim Personal Property: Lastly, if you take someone’s personal property because it is actually your own property, you can argue privilege as a defense. In order for this defense to be successful, the defendant must have taken your property or it must be in the defendant’s possession because of an act of god, such as a storm or flood.
Trespass to chattel is a civil claim, and if you are worried about facing criminal charges then the real concern is conversion.
Conversion is when you take another person’s property (a.k.a. chattel) and “convert” it for your personal use. In other words, it is when you take another person’s property, knowing that it does not belong to you, and take it with intend to keep it and make it yours.
In conversion, there is no destruction of the property, but instead the property is purposefully held in their possession with the intent to own it.
If you are sued for civil trespass to chattel, you should speak to a local personal injury lawyer to determine if you have any of the above defenses available in your situation. If you do have potential defenses, a lawyer can help argue the defenses in court and attempt to get the case against you dropped or your damages decreased.