Trespass to Chattels

Under common law, there are seven types of intentional torts: assault, battery, false imprisonment, trespass to land, trespass to chattels, conversion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Trespass to chattels refers to the use of property without permission of the owner. Trespass to chattels can be easily confused with the tort of conversion because they both deal wrongful interference of personal property. Read on to learn about what a valid trespass to chattels claim is and how it is used in a personal injury case.

What Is Trespass to Chattels?

Generally, a trespass refers to a wrongful use of another person's property without his or her permission. Under intentional torts, there are two types of trespass: (1) trespass to chattels and (2) trespass to land. Trespass to land is an unlawful entry or use of another person's land without the owner's permission or reasonable excuse.

On the other hand, a trespass to chattels is an intentional interference with another person's lawful possession of a personal property. A "chattel" refers to any personal property, moving or unmoving. Trespass to chattels does not apply to real property or any interest in land. In order to prove trespass to chattels, you are required to show the following elements:

  • Intent to trespass: Merely intending to do the act is enough to show this element of trespass. You don't necessarily need to show intent to harm a specific person.
  • Lack of owner's consent: There must be an unauthorized, unlawful interference, which means the person interfered with or dispossessed the chattel without the owner's permission.
  • Interference of chattels: A person commits a trespass to chattel by (1) dispossessing another of the chattel, (2) using or intermeddling with a chattel in the possession of another, or (3) damaging the chattel. Interference does include dispossession of a chattel, but it must be something short of conversion.

Keep in mind that mistake of ownership is not a valid defense to a trespass to chattels. In other words, it doesn't matter if the person didn't know the property belonged to you. Possessing or damaging the property itself is enough to show interference.

What Is a Valid Trespass to Chattels Claim?

In general, a person will be held liable for a trespass to chattels in any of the following situations:

  1. The person dispossesses the other of the chattel.
  2. The chattel is impaired as to its condition, quality, or value.
  3. The possessor is deprived of the use of the chattel for a substantial time.
  4. Bodily harm is caused to the possessor, or harm is caused to some person or thing in which the possessor has a legally protected interest.

In a trespass to chattels claim, you can only recover actual damages (as opposed to nominal damages). Actual damages are measured by the diminished value of the chattel that resulted from the defendant's actions.

Example of Trespass to Chattels

Let's say you're watching a movie with your friend, Bob, at his place. After the movie ends, you get up to go home. As you're leaving, you see a laptop sitting on a coffee table and pick it up, thinking it's yours. In fact, the laptop belongs to Bob. His laptop happens to be the exact same model as yours. Even if you genuinely thought the laptop was yours, you're still liable for a trespass to chattels because you intended to take the laptop.

As mentioned above, mistake of ownership is not a defense to a trespass to chattels. However, in order to successfully sue you, Bob will have to show that you've done some harm to the laptop or to Bob by taking it. Without showing actual damages, Bob won't be able to recover any compensation.

Get a Free Review of Your Trespass to Chattels Claim

If you think your personal property has been wrongfully interfered with by another person or entity, you may have a valid trespass to chattels claim. Trespass to chattels is an old common law tort that was more often used in traditional cases ages ago. As a result, the elements of trespass to chattels can be difficult to apply to a modern-day case. Consider getting a free claim review by an experienced personal injury lawyer, who can assist you in recovering your damages.

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