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Conduct Constituting Conversion

Conversion is any unauthorized exercise of dominion over property by one who is not the owner of the property and which interferes with a superior possessory right[i].  A conversion occurs when a person without authority or permission intentionally takes the personal property of another or deprives another of possession of personal property[ii].

A conversion is an act of wilful interference with a chattel, done without lawful justification by which the person entitled thereto is deprived of its use and possession[iii].  Since a conversion is a tort and a wrongful act, it cannot spring from the exercise of a legal right[iv].

While a specific intent is not required, intent to exercise dominion or control over the goods which is in fact inconsistent with the plaintiff’s rights is necessary to establish the tort.  Thus conversion can result only from an act intended to affect the chattel[v]. When such an act occurs, the plaintiff may bring suit if s/he had either actual or constructive possession or an immediate right to possession of the chattel at the time of the conversion.

There is no conversion until one assumes and exercises dominion and control over someone else’s property in an unlawful and unauthorized manner.  Thus, a conversion may consist of a wrongful, tortious, or unlawful taking of property from the possession of another by theft[vi].

Although conversion results only from intentional conduct, it does not however require a conscious wrongdoing but only intent to exercise dominion or control over the goods inconsistent with the owner’s right[vii].  A purchaser of stolen goods or an auctioneer who sells them in good faith becomes a converter since his/her acts are an interference with the control of the property or in other words, a claiming of the ownership in such property and taking it out of the possession of someone else with intention of exercising dominion over it is a conversion.  Thus a bona fide purchaser of goods for value from one who has no right to sell them becomes a converter when s/he takes possession of such goods.

The foundation for the action of conversion rests neither in the knowledge nor the intent of the defendant.  It rests on the unwarranted interference by a defendant with dominion over the property of the plaintiff from which injury to the latter results[viii].

Further, a plaintiff’s right of redress no longer depends upon his/her showing that the defendant did the act in question with a wrongful motive or even intentionally.  Hence the want of such motives or of intention is no defense nor is negligence necessary to prove conversion.  Thus, there is a class of cases in which the tort consists in the breach of what may be called an absolute duty and the act itself is unlawful and redressible as a tort.

There must be an affirmative wrongful act and mere nonfeasance or failure to perform a duty imposed by contract or implied by law is not conversion[ix].  There must be a wrongful taking, detention, illegal use, misuse, or assumption of ownership.  Thus, a misdelivery by a carrier may be a conversion but a mere nondelivery is not.

A conversion may be committed against one who has legal possession regardless of the question of title[x].  In order to establish a conversion, the complaint must allege an unauthorized assumption and exercise of the right of ownership over the personal property of another to the detriment of the owner.  The exercise of ownership over the property may take a number of forms and may occur even when the original possession was not wrongful[xi].

While it is not necessary for a defendant to take or destroy goods to constitute a conversion, it is also insufficient for a defendant to secretly declare ownership when that declaration does nothing to inform the owner or any other interested party that an interference with ownership is intended[xii].

An element of conversion is some affirmative act like, asportation by the defendant or another person, denial of access to the rightful owner, or assertion to the owner of a claim on the goods, sale, or other commercial exploitation of the goods by the defendant.

Where a person has illegally seized the personal property of another and converted it to his/her use, the owner may bring an action for conversion[xiii].  However, seizure per se is not necessarily conversion, since one may have a right to seize the property.  Where the person seizing the property has the right to do so, there is no conversion even though the seizure may have been accomplished by force.

Similarly, the legal and legitimate use of process to effect the result that such process is designed by law to accomplish is not an abuse of process, notwithstanding whether the use was actuated by a wrongful motive, purpose, intent, or with malice[xiv].

[i] Frink Am., Inc. v. Champion Rd. Mach. Ltd., 43 Fed. Appx. 456 (2d Cir. N.Y. 2002)

[ii] Darcars Motors of Silver Spring v. Borzym, 150 Md. App. 18 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2003)

[iii] Allred v. Hinkley, 8 Utah 2d 73 (Utah 1958)

[iv] Hopper v. Bills, 255 La. 628 (La. 1970)

[v] Chrysler Credit Corp. v. B.J.M., Jr., Inc., 834 F. Supp. 813 (E.D. Pa. 1993)

[vi] Darcars Motors of Silver Spring v. Borzym, 150 Md. App. 18 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2003)

[vii] Allred v. Hinkley, 8 Utah 2d 73 (Utah 1958)

[viii] Henderson v. Security Nat. Bank, 72 Cal. App. 3d 764 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1977)

[ix] Eagle Machine Co. v. American Dist. Tel. Co., 127 Ind. App. 403 (Ind. Ct. App. 1957)

[x] Robinson v. Nat’l Autotech, Inc., 117 S.W.3d 37 (Tex. App. Dallas 2003)

[xi] Unigard Ins. Co. v. Tremont, 37 Conn. Supp. 596 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1981)

[xii] State v. Seventh Regiment Fund, 98 N.Y.2d 249 (N.Y. 2002)

[xiii] Vines v. Branch, 244 Va. 185 (Va. 1992)

[xiv] Nathans v. Vuci, 443 So. 2d 690 (La.App. 1 Cir. 1983)

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