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Conversion and Trespass to Chattels

Court Basics

You might be able to sue for "conversion" or "trespass to chattels" if someone takes and refuses to return your property.

Here, learn about the legal concepts of conversion and trespass to chattels. If someone takes your property and refuses to return it, you can sue them for conversion or trespass to chattels in civil court. 

What are "conversion" and "trespass to chattels"?

"Conversion" or "trespass to chattels" may occur when someone takes or uses another person's personal property without asking. 

These are the names of types of lawsuits in civil court. This differs from "pressing charges" (filing a criminal complaint) against someone for theft, which is a crime.

What are the elements of conversion and trespass to chattels?

To succeed when suing someone for conversion or trespass to chattels, you must prove: 

  1. You owned, had legal possession of, or were entitled to possession of the property. 
  2. The defendant unlawfully took and controlled the property, interfering with your rights to it.  
  3. You demanded the return of the property.  
  4. The defendant refused to return the property.  

See Waisath v. Lack's Stores, Inc.

Does it matter how much the property is worth?

Yes.

If the converted property is worth $20,000 or less, you need to get that specific piece of property back to be eligible to file a suit for conversion.  

For example, if your car is stolen and comes back with a damaged bumper, you can sue in district court without having to get the car back if the car is worth more than $20,000.  

Is there a statute of limitations?

Yes. The statute oflimitations for conversion and trespass to chattels is two years. This means you only have two years from the date of the conversion to file a lawsuit. The relevant statute is Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code 16.003(a). 

In Texas, a two-year statute of limitations is typical for torts based on trespass to personal or property rights. For example, injury to personal property, conversion, personal injury, and wrongful death are all torts subject to the two-year statute of limitation. Each of these actions involves some type of trespass, be it to land, personal property, or to the body itself. 

What damages can I get if I win a conversion suit?

When bringing a suit for conversion, you need to tell the court what relief you are seeking. The plaintiff must choose between two types of remedies. 

  1. Lost value of the converted property

    Courts can order the return of the item taken, with additional special damages attached to compensate for the period you were without the item. For example, if you sue and the court awards a necklace returned to you, the defendant can be ordered to pay you monetary damages for the time you were without the necklace. 

  2. Return of the item and special damages for time without the item 

    If the item is nonrecoverable, a plaintiff is entitled to damages equal to the item's full value at the time and place of conversion. The measure of damages in conversion is the property's fair market value at the time and place of the conversion. 

    For example, your necklace is not returned after repeated requests and cannot now be found. If you successfully sue and win, your damages would be the fair market value of the necklace at the time of the conversion, not the price you paid for it. This could be less than the original purchase price.

In contrast, if your trespass to chattels suit succeeds, it only covers the value of the damage done, not the property's full value.

How does conversion differ from "trespass to chattels"?

The main difference between the two is the degree of interference with the property. And the court can award more damages in a conversion suit.  If you sue someone for trespass to chattels, you can get "actual damages," which are the value the item loses because of what the taker did. 

Conversion is when a person significantly uses or alters a person’s tangible property without their consent. Typically, it involves a more serious degree of modification to the property—for example, if your car is stolen and wrecked. 

Trespass to chattels only covers the value of the damage done, not the property's full value—for example, if your car is stolen but returned with only a few scratches. 

What are the defenses?

If someone is suing you for conversion, some common defenses are: 

  1. Statute of Limitations: If the two-year statute of limitations has run, you can mention this to the court in your answer and ask that a motion to dismiss be granted.  
  2. Abandonment: If you can prove that the disputed tangible property was actually abandoned by the owner claiming ownership. 
  3. Consent or Approval by Plaintiff: If the Plaintiff said you can take or have the disputed item.  
  4. Privilege: The law can give you the privilege to have the item, such as lawfully seized property that you acquired in an auction.  

Mistake of ownership is often NOT a valid defense for conversion.  

There may be more defenses available. Talk to a lawyer to evaluate your particular situation. 

Why would you sue someone for conversion instead of pressing charges?

Talk to a lawyer about your options. 

One example of a time when a conversion suit might be appropriate is when law enforcement or the prosecutor categorizes the matter as a civil dispute and opts not to proceed with a criminal complaint. But this is not the only circumstance. 

Conversion and trespass to chattels are how you would ask a civil court to address the dispute. Conversion and trespass to chattels are torts.

What is a tort?

A tort is a private or civil wrong that results in harm to another through failure to perform some duty required by law or custom. The victim of a tort may have the right to sue for damages to compensate for the harm suffered. Victims of crimes may also sue in tort (in a civil case) for the wrongs done to them.

What court do I sue in?

Typically, a conversion claim of $20,000 or less will be handled in small claims or justice court. TexasLawHelp.org has a guide on How to Sue in Justice Court written by the Texas Young Lawyers Association.

Claims where the property is worth more than $20,000 should be filed in district court or a county court at law. Read about the different types of courts in Texas.   

Can I get attorneys fees in a conversion or trespass to chattels suit?

Generally, the rule in Texas is that a person must pay their own attorneys fees, but a conversion claim is one of the types of suits in which you might be able to ask for attorney fees. Hiring an attorney can help you recover additional damages and fees that you may be entitled to.

Can you sue someone for conversion if they take your real property?

No. 

Real property is not covered under conversion claims; only tangible personal property is. Examples of tangible property include jewelry, cars, furnishings, and cash.

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