Nature of Conversion I
There is conversion where a person wrongfully deprives the true owner of the use and possession of goods. Conversion takes place where there is any dealing with goods which is inconsistent with the rights of the true owner.
As with trespass generally, liability is strict. Conversion may occur in good faith where the person believes he is the owner of goods. The action need not be intentional or even negligent. It is enough that the defendant acts voluntarily.
The essence of conversion is that a person deals with another person’s goods in a manner inconsistent with his latter’s ownership. This could be by way of a purported sale, pledging for security or the physical breaking of the item concerned.
Where a third party is in possession of goods with the consent of the owner, an abuse of that consent may constitute conversion. This would include the destruction of the item and its purported sale or mortgage. A refusal to return the goods when they are due to be returned may amount to detinue and conversion.
Denial of Title
In one sense, every conversion is the denial of the true owner’s rights. In the broad sense, conversion is the wrongful assertion of title to goods or the denial of another’s title. There need not be an explicit or conscious assertion of title. Where a person acts definitively as if he is the owner of goods, to the detriment of the true owner and without his consent, he converts them.
The essence of conversion is that the defendant has done something inconsistent with the title or right of the true owner. Accordingly, selling such goods or pledging them as security is likely to constitute conversion.
A person may be liable for conversion if he denies the title of the true owner, even if he is not in possession of the goods. This may be so, even if he has an honest belief in relation to his own title. A person may be liable for conversion, where he has stolen, misappropriated goods or even purchased which he has no title.
Acts of Conversion
The taking of a chattel in itself, will not necessarily constitute conversion. Something must be done which is inconsistent with the title of the true owner. However, there need not be any intention to deprive or actual permanent deprivation of the owner’s possession.
A person who receives and comes into possession of goods without the owner’s consent may become liable for conversion. Where goods are given without request, the recipient must not damage or destroy them. He must take reasonable steps to return them to their owner. If they are not collected, have no value or have become a nuisance, he may be justified in disposing of them.
Legislation has changed the position in the case of unsolicited goods sent to consumers. See separately, the sections in relation to consumer law provisions in that regard which are designed to prevent inertia selling.
Breaking Damaging and Jeopardising Goods
The misuse of goods by a person who comes into possession of them without title may constitute conversion. On the other hand, doing that which is not inconsistent with the title of the owner would not constitute conversion.
Where a person breaks or destroys goods, this will generally constitute conversion. It is inconsistent with the owner’s title. If the goods are changed but not destroyed, there may not be converted, although there may be trespass. A change of identity is said to constitute conversion, but a change in quality is a trespass only.
The misuse of a vehicle such that it risks being seized by police would appear to constitute conversion. The failure to return goods once demanded by the true owner is likely to constitute conversion.
Subject of Conversion
Conversion extends beyond chattels, to money, cheques, title deeds, and animals, which were not regarded as personal property at common law
Traditionally, the human body was not regarded as property, at least while the person was alive.Recent cases have contemplated that human tissue may be capable of being converted, such as where, for example, it has been damaged through improper storage. It is not clear if this would apply to human embryos.
Animals are chattels for the purpose of trespass. It is trespass to hit, beat, or throw an object at an animal. However, it is unlikely to be trespass to lay poison for an animal as this is insufficiently direct.
Conversion and Third Parties
A person may claim conversion based on his ownership or possession. Where goods are found, the person who comes into possession has good title against all parties, other than those with a better title. He may himself maintain an action for trespass against all third parties, without a better title.
A bailee is estopped from denying the bailor’s title, in much the same way as with tenant and landlord. A third-party must displace the bailor’s title by proving a better title (title paramount).
Co-owners cannot be liable for conversion as regards each other.
Where a person has possession of goods, he may require parties who make competing claims to them to institute interpleader proceedings. The goods are put under the court to abide the result.
Conversion and Land
The occupier of land or premises, where goods are found, may have a better title than the finder, where he possesses or intends to possess them. Where things are found in or under land, the owner or occupier of the land may have a superior title to the finder.
If movable property is attached to land or buildings, it is a fixture and belongs to the landowner or tenant. Where it is not attached, the owner or occupier of land may have a better title, if before the personal property is found, he has manifested an intention to exercise control over the building, place or thing, in which it is situated.
The owner of the land is not necessarily owner or possessor of everything in the land. Under one judicial approach, the owner of land in or on which mislaid or unremembered chattels are intentionally placed for safekeeping, whether in or under the surface, cannot claim to be the owner of the chattels, simply by reason of being the owner of the land.
The better position appears to be that the owner or occupier has a right of bare possession against third parties. Under this approach, the owner or occupier of land may be deemed to be in possession of chattels in and under it, even if he did not know of their existence. He may maintain a claim for possession, as distinct from ownership, against a claimant whether a trespasser or another whose claim is based simply on unearthing and removing the chattels.
Where a person acquires goods/chattels in or under land as a trespasser, public policy may require that he does not benefit from the trespass and that he should be denied rights in the chattels found.
Claim and Damages
An action for conversion can be brought by a person who has possession of the goods or a right to possess them. Damages for conversion are generally the value of the item or chattel, at the date of conversion. This is assessed in accordance with general principles, similar to those applicable in the case of a breach of contract for the sale of goods.
The loss of rental value may be allowed. See the chapter on detinue; manyof the same principles apply.
A person who has ownership or a right to possession of the goods can claim damages for conversion. A person cannot usually claim on the basis of a third party’s right unless he claims through that party.
Where a claimant has not exercised care and protection of his own property, he may be contributorily negligent so that his damages may be reduced. The right of compensation is for the value of the article at the relevant date.
Liability in trespass is strict. The act need only be voluntary. It need not be intentional. If a person has the honest but mistaken belief that he has title, and that the true owner does not have title, this is not a defence.
That which would otherwise constitute trespass may be mandated by consent. The acts must be within the scope of the consent. If the person exceeds the terms of consent, consent is negated.
Action may be justified by lawful authority. There are numerous statutory provisions which allow Gardaí and public officials to enter property, search for and seize goods that may be evidence in criminal cases. Goods which are stolen, contraband or are used in an unlawful enterprise, may be subject to seizure under legislation.
Legislation commonly confers power on the District Court to issue warrants allowing for search and seizure. The warrants authorise entry, seizure, and removal of material. Typically, it gives an authorised officer, power to enter, search and take evidence.
Generally, the evidence may be removed for the purpose of the investigation and retained pending the conclusion of the proceedings. Legislation may make provisions for disposal of seized evidence in particular cases.
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