This paper examines the concepts of trespass to chattels and conversion under common law torts. According to Torts (Interference with Goods) Acts 1977, a wrongful interference with goods depicts trespass to goods, conversion or trove, negligence which results in damage to goods and any other torts that may inflict damage to goods or an interest in goods{1}.
Trespass to Chattels
A chattel is every movable property while trespass depicts an infringement on someone’ else property without lawful justification. Trespass to chattels are committed substantially by wrongful interference with the possessory title of a proprietor. A person who wrongfully takes or damages someone’ else property, thus excludes land is actionable for trespass to a chattel. It is immaterial whether the trespass is intentional or by mistake. The defendant’s direct and physical interference with the plaintiff’s property is enough ground to hold the former liable for trespass, unlike the old action of trespass to goods, called “de bonis asportatis” which only classified a total removal or complete destruction of the plaintiff’s goods as trespass.
Thus, a plaintiff can only recover nominal damages for mere wrongful moving or touching of chattels without any harm being inflicted, while actual damages to chattels are assessed by the diminished value that resulted from the defendant’s actions. An instance of nominal damage occurred in Police v. Krupinski where a device for immobilizing an illegally parked car was termed an act of trespass to chattel{2}.
In Kirk v. Gregory and wife, Justice Sarah Evans held that “moving the deceased brother in law’s rings to the next room to hide from the servants was trespass to goods”{3}. The defendant, Gregory and wife, who moved the deceased rings from his house to their custody despite acclaimed good intentions were held liable for trespass “actionable per se,” an interference without proof of actual damage to a chattel.
Trespass to chattels protects possession rather than ownership. The plaintiff in an action for trespass to chattels must therefore have had the right to possess or own the personal property at the time of the interference by the defendant. For instance, in Kirk v. Gregory, the plaintiff, a servant to the deceased was in possession of the deceased’s goods when Gregory meddled with those rings. For a third party or family members to possess the deceased goods, a probate or letter of administration must be granted to them. But a trustee who is not in physical possession of goods can bring an action for trespass against a third party on the tenet of the trustee’s right to immediate possession.
Where a chattel belongs to no one {res nullis}, the proof of a better title {jus tertii} suffices. In Hannah v. Peel, the plaintiff, a military man was stationed in a house and accidentally found a brooch in the room occupied by him. He handed the brooch over to the police. When the rightful owner was not found, the chattel was delivered to the owner of the house (defendant) by the police. The man who initially found the chattel brought a suit for recovery. It was substantiated that the defendant was never in possession of the house and had no knowledge of the brooch until it was brought to his notice. The court held that the defendant had neither “de facto control nor the animus of excluding others and as such had no possession. The plaintiff was entitled to the brooch or its value since his claim as finder prevailed over all but the rightful owner”{4}.
Furthermore, trespass to chattels is interconnected and extended to cyberspace operation. Since torts fundamentally provided remedies for unauthorized meddling with private property, plaintiffs succeed in obtaining court injunctions against defendants’ or outsiders’ intrusion on their computers or telephone networks. Unlike other chattels, technological advancement has created numerous indirect electronic invasions from a third party. In Inc. v. Bezenek, a California Court of Appeal held that phreaking (unorthodox access to telephone systems) which constituted a flow of electrons is a trespass to chattels{5}. While it was ruled in Intel Corp v. Hamidi that the defendant’s act of spamming into Intel Corp’s internet facilities did not breach any security barriers or hamper basic activities on the plaintiff’s computer system{6}.
Tort of Conversion
Tort of conversion is an intentional interference with the plaintiff’s chattels. In other words, it is an exercise of dominion over the plaintiff’s property in a manner which the interference denies the plaintiff’s use of such property. The tort of conversion was elucidated in the rhetorical question of Lord Holt C.J’s; “What is conversion but assuming upon one’s self the property and right of disposing of another’s goods?”{7}. In Kuwait Airways Corp v. Iraqi Airways Co, the essential features of trespass to chattels were classified into three; “first, the defendant’s conduct is inconsistent with the rights of the owner or other person entitled to possession; second, that conduct is deliberate; and third, the conduct is so extensive an encroachment on the rights of the owner or other person as to exclude him or her from use and possession of the goods”{8}. In Tear v. Freebody, a surveyor employed to pull down a building built beyond the building line removed some materials from the site to his yard with the intention of possessing them. The surveyor was held liable in conversion{9}.
Conversion is akin to trespass in the sense that it essentially protects possession rather than ownership. Unlike trespass in tort which the plaintiff must have had the possession of the chattel at the time of its dispossession, interference is sufficient when the claimant in conversion has immediate possession of a deprived chattel. Non-acquisition of any benefits in the goods converted by a defendant is no defense in trespass to chattels because the defendant act of unlawful possession itself amounts to conversion. Innocence of the defendant as to ownership or acting in good faith is no defense in conversion suits. In Fowler v. Hollins(1872), the defendants obtained possession of thirteen bailes of cotton in good faith from Mr. Bayley, a cotton broker who had fraudulently possessed the cotton from the plaintiff. Indeed, the defendants had no knowledge of the infirmity in Bayloy’s title, they were held liable for conversion{10}. Lord Chelmsford also opined in this case that “But to my mind the proposition which fits this case is, that any person who, however innocently obtains possession of the goods of a person who has been fraudulently deprived of them, and disposes of them, whether for his own benefit, or that of another person, is guilty of conversion.”
Joint tenancy or tenancy in common is not actionable in conversion. The possession of joint tenants in a chattel is equal under common law. Conversion can only arise when one co-owner destroys or consumes the chattel in question. In Morgan v. Marquis, Parke B. posited that “It is well established that one tenant in common cannot maintain an action against his companion unless there has been a destruction of the particular chattel or something equivalent to it”{11}.
Besides the rule that possession is a valid ground to grant a claim in conversion, the following set of persons may be entitled to sue;
Finders; A person who finds a chattel in a place where it appears to have been lost acquires rights over it if the true owner is anonymous. The finder is obliged to take reasonable attempts to locate the owner. Where unable to reach the owner, the finder can maintain an action against anyone who interferes with such chattel in his possession. In Armory v. Dejamirie, the court ruled in favour of a Chimney Sweep’s lad who found a jewel and handed it over to a goldsmith’s apprentice who refused to return the jewel to the lad{12}.
Holders of liens; A lien holder has legal possession of the goods subject to the lien. This holder can sue anyone who interferes with that possession.
Bailees; A bailee is entrusted with the possession of goods by the bailor. The contractual agreement between parties(bailor and bailee) under bailment define the terms and conditions which revolved the bailment. A bailee is not an insurer; no strict liability. He is only liable for damages that arise from his negligence or act which contravenes the terms and conditions under bailment. The bailee has legal rights to sue anyone(except the bailor) who interferes with the goods in his possession though there are two varient perceptions on the bailee’s right to recover full damages from a third person tortfeasor; his possession of the bailors’ chattel and his liability to the bailor in bailment. In Rooth v. Wilson, a bailee was granted an action to maintain a suit against a third party who was responsible for the death of his bailor’s horse. The bailor can terminate the bailment and sue the bailee if the latter wrongly deals with the goods in his possession or inflicts damage on them. The bailor can also bring an action in conversion against a third party Cooper v. Willomat{13}.
In conclusion, trespass to chattels and conversion in common law torts essentially stands to protect property rights by proffering remedies to wrongful interference with private chattels, whether the infringement amounts to a denial of title, or to the damage or destruction of goods.
Binzak Azeez writes from the faculty of Law Obafemi Awolowo University, (O.A.U) Ile Ife.
1, Tort(Interference with Goods) Act 1977 chapter 32
2, Police v. Krupinski(1994)DCR12
3, Carl H. Kirk v. Officer Henry C. Gregory(1876)1EXD55
4, Hannah v. Peel(1945) 1KB5.9
5, Inc v. Bezenek (June 28, 1996) No. G01397)
6, Intel Corp v. Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi 30Cal.4th 1342(Cal. Supreme Ct., June 30 2003)
7, Lord Holt C.J., (Baldwin v. Col, 377)
8, Kuwait Airways Corp v. Iraq Airways Co, (No2); HL8 Feb 2001
9, Tear v. Freebody(1858)4C.B.N.S.228
10, Fowler v. Hollins(1872)LR7QB616
11, Morgan v. Marquis(1853) 9.EX. 145
12, Armory v. Delamirie. King’s Bench 93 E.R.664(1722)
13, Cooper v. Willomatt (1845)1C.B.672

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