Personal property is anything other than land which may be subject to ownership. The main characteristic of personal property is that it can be moved, unlike real property or real estate.
There are two main categories of personal property, tangible and intangible. Tangible property is property which may be physically handled, including:

  • Clothes;
  • Jewelry;
  • Furniture; and
  • Other items.

Intangible personal property is property which cannot be physically handled, including:

  • Stocks;
  • Trust fund accounts; and
  • Copyrights and other intellectual property.

How Does the Definition of Personal Property Compare with Real Property?

Real property is any property which is land or is attached to or affixed to the land, including crops and buildings. Real property is property which cannot be moved, in contrast to personal property which can be moved.

In addition, there is a basic assumption that most real property has a higher value than personal property, although this is not always the case.

What are Some Legal Applications of Real Property vs. Personal Property?

The difference between real property and personal property can be seen in numerous areas of law. For example, in contract law, the sale of real property is required to be in writing, although not all personal property sales contracts are required to be in writing.

Other legal implications of real property and personal property law may include:

  • Personal property tax consequences;
  • Divisions of property in a separation or divorce case;
  • Property distributions in a will or trust;
  • Descriptions of property in a title deed;
  • Personal property contracts;
  • Distributions of property when a business is sold; and
  • Various other applications.

Therefore, it is helpful to know whether property is classified as real property or personal property. Personal property items may become real property, for instance, if an item is attached to a building or if certain materials are made into a fence or a gate which is attached to land.

What is Trespass to Chattel?

Chattel refers to personal property, either tangible or intangible. It does not, however, apply to real property or an interest in land. Trespass to chattel is a legal term which refers to the intentional and wrongful interference of the personal property of another without their permission.

How Do You Prove Trespass to Chattel?

In order to prove trespass to chattel, an individual is required to prove the following elements:

  • The plaintiff has the right to possess or owns the personal property;
  • The defendant intentionally interfered with the property of the plaintiff without their consent;
  • The defendant deprived the plaintiff of possession or use of the property; and
  • The interference caused damages to the plaintiff.

Trespass to chattel is a valid claim in the following situations:

  • The individual dispossesses the other of the chattel;
  • The condition, quality or value of the chattel is impaired;
  • The owner is prevented from using the chattel for a substantial time; and
  • Bodily harm was caused to the property owner or harm was caused to an individual or property in which the owner has a legally protected interest.

Mistake of ownership is not a valid defense to a claim of trespass to chattel. In other words, even if a trespassing individual was not aware that the property belonged to a certain individual, damaging or possessing the property is still enough to demonstrate interference.

In addition, an individual may only recover actual damages in a trespass to chattel claim. These damages are based upon the diminished value of the chattel as a result of the actions of the defendant.

How is Trespass to Chattel Similar to Conversion?

Both conversion and trespass to chattel are intentional torts. Both torts involve the wrongful and intentional interference with the possession of an individual’s personal property.

Both of these torts only involve personal property. They do not apply to the interference of real property or an interest in land. With conversion, a plaintiff is required to prove the same elements as those in trespass to chattel.

Both conversion and trespass to chattel are general intent torts as opposed to specific intent torts. This means that a defendant will be liable regardless of whether or not they were aware that their conduct would result in the specific harm.

In addition, mistake of ownership is not a valid defense to conversion or trespass to chattel.

How is Trespass to Chattel Different from Conversion?

The main difference between conversion and trespass to chattel is the degree of interference. Conversion occurs when an individual alters or uses a piece of personal property that belongs to another individual without their consent.

With conversion, the degree of interference must be so severe that the defendant may be required to pay the full value of the property. Trespass to chattel, however, is an act which falls short of conversion.

The defendant will only be responsible to the extent of the damage that was done and not for the full value of the property. For example, if an individual steals another individual’s property and they can recover it with little to no damage, they may have a cause of action in trespass but if the individual steals that property and sells it to another individual, the owner may have a cause of action in conversion.

What Defenses May I Have if I am Sued for Trespass to Chattel?

If an individual is sued for trespass to chattel, they may be able to use one of the following defenses:

  • Consent;
  • Public necessity;
  • Private necessity; or
  • Privileged invasion to reclaim personal property.

Consent is the most common defense to trespass to chattel. If a property owner gave another individual permission to use their personal property, they can claim consent.

It is important to note that consent may be given using both words and actions. This defense, however, will not work if the consent was induced by fraud or if it was given by an individual who is:

  • Incompetent;
  • Intoxicated; or
  • A minor.

Public necessity is a defense which may be used if an individual intentionally interferes with another individual’s chattel to protect the public. If, however, the individual acted unreasonably when taking the chattel, this defense will not be available. For example, if one individual takes another individual’s fun to prevent them from using it.

Private necessity is a defense which may be used when another individual’s chattel is used to protect an individual’s own interests. Private necessity can only be claimed if an individual was attempting to protect themselves from death or serious bodily harm. This is not a commonly used defense.

Privileged invasion to reclaim personal property occurs when an individual takes another individuals property because it is actually their own property. In order for this defense to apply, the defendant must have taken the property or it must be in the possession of the defendant because of an act of God, including floods or storms.

What About Criminal Charges for Trespass to Chattel?

Trespass to chattel is a civil claim and an individual will not face criminal charges. Conversion, however, may result in criminal charges because an individual takes another individual’s property for their own personal use, knowing that it does not belong to them, and they intend to keep it.

With conversion, no destruction of the property occurs but the property is, instead, purposefully held in their possession with the intent to own it.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

If you believe that an individual has intentionally and wrongfully interfered with your personal property without your permission, it may be helpful to consult with a property attorney before proceeding.

Your attorney can advise you of the laws of your state and which legal concept may apply to your situation as well as your options for obtaining remedies.