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Conversion v. Trespass

lockWhen it comes to personal property, the law of torts allows for an aggrieved person to use one of two causes of action to pursue a case for damages.  While the two causes of action may seem similar, they are in fact quite different.  These two methods of recovery are not interchangeable.  Rather, depending on the destruction of the personal property or the deprivation to the owner of his or her personal property, these factors will weigh heavily in determining which method of recovery you and your lawyer will utilize to maximize your recovery.  The two causes of action, trespass to chattels and conversion, will each be discussed in turn.

Under the theory of conversion, a person may recovery for the distinct and unauthorized act of dominion or ownership that is exercised by a person who is not the owner of the property.  Put differently, if John owns item X and Jane takes item X without John’s consent and ultimately destroys it, Jane is liable under the theory of conversion.  Other acts which may constitute conversion under the laws of Massachusetts:

(1) depriving another of their property;

(2) destroying or altering the property;

(3) using the property in a manner which seriously violates the right of the owner to control its use;

(4) receiving possession of the property from another with intent to acquire it for himself or for another;

(5) refusing to surrender the property upon reasonable demand after a reasonable opportunity to identify the true owner.

In order to pursue a cause of action predicated upon conversion, the owner must show that it was not a minimal interference with the use of his or her property.  Rather, the act of the defendant-tortfeasor must be a serious interference.   If the property is destroyed the owner may recover the reasonable market value of the property.  If the owner’s property is returned, he or she may recover the difference between the value of the property when it was taken and when it was returned (in addition to damages for the loss of us during the period of wrongful detention).

Trespass to chattels is something less than conversion.  This tort is frequently used when the interference with the property does not rise to the serious deprivation required under the theory of conversion.  In order to pursue a claim for trespass to chattels, the plaintiff must show that the defendant intentionally and wrongfully disposed him or her to their property (chattel).  Not just any fleeting act constitutes a trespass.  There is a fine line between the deprivation required to maintain a case for trespass to chattels and the serious deprivation required for conversion.  A Plaintiff, additionally, must show that there was damage to the property or to him or herself from being deprived of that personal property in order to pursue a claim.

If you or someone you know has suffered as a result of the deprivation of personal property, our office may be able to help.  Deprivation of personal property can take a multitude of forms, but mostly consists of property being destroyed at the hands of another.  To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.